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Scott Walker leans into 'education governor' message as opponents scoff

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Scott Walker: 'I'm a pro-education governor' (copy)

Gov. Scott Walker, shown meeting with fourth-graders at Mineral Point Elementary School in June 2017.

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker started branding himself "the pro-education governor," one of his Democratic opponents said he "thought it was a joke from The Onion."

"I personally think that he lost more than his hair when he hit his head if he thinks he's the education governor," said Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn during an interview last month, referencing a story Walker has told about the origins of his bald spot. "It takes guts to say something like that."

Whatever it takes, Walker is going all-in on his "education governor" push. 

Over the last month, his campaign has released two television ads featuring teachers praising his education record as he seeks a third term. 

"I’m being aggressive on this," Walker said in an interview last month. "We’re proclaiming proudly that I'm the pro-education governor and that I want to continue to be the pro-education governor."

Walker points to his signature Act 10 legislation, his expansion of the state's voucher school programs and his goal of boosting high school graduation rates as evidence to bolster his claim, while his Democratic opponents scoff at his rhetoric. 

The first Walker education ad features Anita D'Abbraccio, a special education teacher in the Racine Unified School District. D'Abbraccio praises Walker for giving schools "flexibility to put money where it matters most, in our classroom." The flexibility D'Abbraccio references is Walker's signature Act 10 legislation, which eliminated most public employees' collective bargaining rights and required them to pay more into their pensions and health insurance premiums.

The law sparked massive protests at the state Capitol in 2011, where public school teachers played a significant role. During one "sick-out" protest, 40 percent of the Madison teacher union's 2,600 members called in sick to protest Walker's new policy.

Most Democratic candidates for governor have said they would repeal Act 10 if elected. Walker argues that would make it more difficult to send resources directly to classrooms, to reward exceptional teachers and to fire those who aren't up to par.

A Marquette University Law School poll released last month found that 47 percent of Wisconsin voters would like to see collective bargaining for public employees restored to its pre-Act 10 status, while 43 percent support keeping Act 10 on the books. Ten percent were undecided. 

A second education-focused ad focuses on a bill Walker signed into law in March increasing sparsity aid for small, rural schools. That legislation also allows districts that spend less than most others to raise their revenue limits without a vote from local property taxpayers. Similar provisions were added to the 2017-19 budget by lawmakers but vetoed by Walker. He then offered his support for the measures as separate legislation.

The budget Walker signed into law in September 2017 included a $639 million funding boost  to K-12 schools.

The ad features Jeanie Hatfield, a recently retired elementary school teacher also from Racine, praising Walker for putting "more resources in the classroom this year."

Hatfield, who spent about 30 years working in public schools before retiring and starting a business, said in an interview that she was pleased with Walker's $200-per-student funding boost in this year's budget, followed by a $204-per-student increase next year. 

She highlighted interactive boards — updates to the chalkboards and whiteboards of the past — her students used at Olympia Brown Elementary School as an example of improvements that can be made with more money in classrooms. 

Hatfield said she thinks the state's approach to education has improved under Walker. 

"For example his expanding the school choice program throughout the state, I think is wonderful," Hatfield said, noting that her children attend a parochial grade school that is part of the state's taxpayer-funded voucher program. "I just think it’s wonderful. We’ve got lots of diversity … I like the fact that he is giving a lot of attention toward rural schools. Giving the kids more opportunities is so important." 

Hatfield, who never joined the teachers' union, said Act 10 "definitely affected teachers," but argued it was ultimately the right move for districts' budgets.

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Tony Evers, right, the state superintendent of public instruction and a Democratic candidate for governor: "The only person who thinks Scott Walker is an 'education governor' is Scott Walker."

Sources familiar with Walker's campaign strategy say the pro-education push is an effort to prepare for the general election. Less than a month ahead of the Aug. 14 primary election, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers leads the eight-candidate Democratic field with the support of 31 percent of primary voters, according to a July 18 Marquette poll

Evers, in his role as state superintendent, initially praised Walker's 2017-19 budget proposal, which included a $649 million boost for K-12 schools, as a "pro-kid budget." But he has argued Walker adopted his own proposals for education spending after "slashing and burning public education for three budgets."

Walker's 2017-19 state budget did send a record amount of money — not adjusted for inflation — to schools, but it came after three budgets that cut education funding or essentially held it flat. 

"The only person who thinks Scott Walker is an 'education governor' is Scott Walker," Evers said in a statement. "He's cut our public schools so badly, over 1 million Wisconsinites have voted to raise their own property taxes to pay for them. It's like borrowing $20 from a kid, giving $10 back and saying you're square — it's not even close. The people of Wisconsin know better than that, which is why support for my campaign is surging and Scott Walker is scared." 

It's not a guarantee that Evers will be the Democratic candidate Walker faces in November — 38 percent of Democratic voters are still undecided — but operatives on both sides of the aisle expect education to play a prominent role in the 2018 election regardless of who's on the ballot.

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A June 20 Marquette poll found that 59 percent of registered voters would rather see more spending on public schools, compared to 35 percent who said lower property taxes are their priority. That's a shift from March 2014, when 49 percent of voters chose lower property taxes and 46 percent opted for more school funding. 

Between the first two TV ads, every pocket of the state will be hit with Walker's education messaging. Additional digital ads, including one launched this week highlighting Project SEARCH — a program Walker expanded that helps high school graduates with disabilities find jobs — will target key audiences including suburban women. Voters can expect to see more education-related ads from Walker's team through November.

"As I travel Wisconsin, visiting schools to meet with teachers, students, and families, I’ve listened to their insight as we've formed our agenda to help Wisconsin win the 21st century," Walker said in an emailed statement. "Over the next four years, we want to continue this progress by striving to have the highest high school graduation rate in the country. With our historic actual-dollar investments into education, our increase in the per-pupil Sparsity Aid funding, grants for mental health assistance and our goals for the future, we are dedicated to student success across the state and regardless of zip code."

Democrats say Walker is pushing hard on education because he knows it could be his opponents' strongest argument against him. 

"Walker's record on education has been a disaster. He is the un-education governor," said Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman TJ Helmstetter. "He has put his personal ambition and deals for special interests like Foxconn ahead of schools. The public knows it, and even he knows it. That's why he's now trying to rewrite history in an election year."

Democrats argue that Walker has for years funneled state funding away from public schools, shifting the burden to local taxpayers, often in the form of referendums. 

They also rail against his commitment of public funds to private voucher schools. Walker has expanded voucher programs beyond Milwaukee and Racine to cover the entire state and to create one for students with disabilities. 

Most Democrats running for governor have committed to phasing out or reining in the state's voucher programs.

Former state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, has been particularly outspoken in her opposition to vouchers. Roys has also honed in on the news that the Delavan-Darien School District — where Walker grew up — will close Darien Elementary School after the 2017-18 school year, citing funding issues. 

"Scott Walker has been one of the most anti-education governors in our state's history," Roys says in a video featuring a local family. "What's happening in Delavan-Darien, Walker's home school district, is not isolated. Schools across the state are struggling with massive budget cuts, and teachers are being asked year after year to do more with less." 

In a recent debate, Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell pledged to pass a constitutional amendment to require the state to fund two-thirds of every school district's budget. 

The DPW's Helmstetter called Walker's campaign push a "last-ditch effort."

"The truth is that the schools are in a funding crisis that has led to school district debt ballooning over a billion dollars and increased pressure on local taxpayers in the form of school referendums," Helmstetter said. 

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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.