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Walker fab lab

A screenshot from Scott Walker's ad touting his apprentice program.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker would make the state's youth apprenticeship program available to seventh- and eighth-grade students under a plan he described this week, as students throughout the state returned to school.

Walker plans to discuss the proposal on the campaign trail in the weeks to come, starting with a speech to the Rotary Club of Milwaukee on Tuesday.

"In Wisconsin, we’re rethinking K-12 education," Walker said in a new TV ad promoting the effort. "Giving high school graduates options other than a four-year degree."

The effort to expand apprenticeships to the middle school level, Walker said in the ad, allows younger students to "get a jump-start on the skilled trades."

The state's youth apprenticeship program dates back to 1991, when it was approved by the Legislature and then-Gov. Tommy Thompson. The program is currently available to juniors and seniors in high school.

Through the program, students are trained in industry skills through classroom and worksite lessons. Students take classes and earn credits while also working as paid employees under the supervision of an industry mentor.

The program is funded by a grant program administered to local organizations of employers, school districts and community partners by the state Department of Workforce Development.

Walker's proposal would expand the program to all high school students, as well as students in seventh and eight grade. Seventh- and eighth-grade students would be trained in fabrication laboratories — also known as fab labs — and in the classroom, while high school students would receive on-the-job training. 

"Allowing Wisconsin’s students to identify earlier the industries they may be interested in will increase their engagement with their schoolwork and provide a jumpstart to their career, even allowing them to begin apprenticeships in high school. We’re putting Wisconsin’s students in control of their learning and future," read a fact sheet from the governor's campaign.

In the 2017-18 school year, 4,365 students and 3,070 employers participated in the program. That's up from 1,638 students and 1,135 employers in the 2010-11 school year.

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Walker has floated the possibility of expanding the youth apprenticeship program for several months as part of his re-election push.

He has said several times that his goal, should he be re-elected to a third term, is to make Wisconsin the top state for high school graduation rates in the United States. The key to accomplishing that, he said in a June interview, is engaging students early in their education for career preparation.

"All of these things are not only about student success but also about getting our students ready for the abundance of careers that we have," Walker said at the time, noting the state's 2.8 percent unemployment rate.

Walker's Democratic opponent, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, has called Walker's efforts to brand himself as a "pro-education governor" a "joke." 

"Just like the typical politician he is, Scott Walker slashes funding for our schools then promises he'll fix it if give him another four years," said Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback in an email. "The people of Wisconsin are smarter than that — Walker trumpeting an unspecified investment in a targeted program won't make them forget about the $800 million Scott Walker has cut from our public schools. They know the only way to see a real commitment to our schools is to elect Tony Evers."

Cudaback noted that Evers has proposed putting an additional $600 million into special education funding, implementing full-day 4K and increasing student mental health funding by tenfold.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.