Elections do not always provide voters with clear choices. But there are some elections where the lines of distinction are absolute. That's certainly the case with today's election for state superintendent of public instruction. The contest pits two candidates with different views, creating a referendum of sorts on critical education issues.
And it could not come at a more appropriate time.
Over the past two years, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has attacked teacher unions and hacked away at education budgets. Those issues are coming to a head as Walker is now proposing a sweeping expansion of a controversial voucher scheme to shift public money to private schools.
Today's statewide election gives voters a chance to send a signal regarding Walker's approach.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who was elected four years ago to the nonpartisan post, is up for re-election. He is, for all intents and purposes, running against Walker’s education agenda. Evers’ campaign is blunt, ripping the governor’s approach as an assault on public schools, and highlighting the fact that “Tony has stood up for Wisconsin's kids and working families, fighting back against a devastating $1.6 billion cut in state funding for education.”
Evers was one of more than 900,000 Wisconsinites who signed petitions seeking to recall Walker. The governor survived that June 2012 electoral challenge but remains a highly controversial figure in Wisconsin and nationally.
As this year's election approached, Evers appeared before the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee to call for the rejection of those portions of Walker’s budget dealing with education. Noting that the governor’s budget would increase state funding for voucher school initiatives by 32 percent without increasing overall school funding, Evers declared: “This has to stop. The state cannot continue to play favorites. We can and must meet our constitutional obligation to invest in all of our kids.”
Evers has been steady in his rejection of voucher schemes, which he argues have not delivered for students or communities. "To spend hundreds of millions to expand a 20-year-old program that has not improved overall student achievement, while defunding public education, is morally wrong," the superintendent has argued.
That’s the opposite position from the one taken by Evers’ challenger, state Rep. Don Pridemore, a Republican closely aligned with Walker. Backed by GOP legislative leaders, Pridemore is an ardent advocate for vouchers who echoes the arguments made by conservative critics of public-sector unions and the teachers who are active with them.
Even Wisconsinites who disagree with Pridemore should give the Hartford Republican credit for mounting a challenge that provides voters with what the Associated Press has correctly identified as a “stark choice” on a range of education issues that begins with the voucher debate but does not end there.
Pridemore backed Walker’s controversial 2011 assault on collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees, along with the governor’s cuts to funding for education and public services. Evers, on the other hand, is backed by the Wisconsin Education Association Council and American Federation of Teachers union locals in the state. And his campaign literature has featured images of the superintendent talking with teachers during mass rallies at the state Capitol.
At virtually every turn the candidates differ. Evers has spent 36 years as an educator, while Pridemore has never taught in a public school nor administered one. Evers talks about education as a tool to help young people achieve their dreams, and to promote citizenship. Pridemore talks about how his education priority is “making sure our kids are prepared for the workforce.”
Pridemore wants to respond to school violence by allowing armed volunteers to patrol the hallways. Evers thinks that’s a poor idea.
But the core difference is with regard to the commitment states and communities bring to maintaining public schools.
Pridemore embodies not just the Walker agenda, but the vision advanced by national groups that gripe about budgets for public schools while promoting the diversion of taxpayer dollars to fund private schools. Indeed, he says he’ll back vouchers until his “dying days.”
Evers embodies the classic pro-public education agenda. He doesn’t just defend public schools; he’s gone so far as to propose during the current campaign that state spending be increased by roughly $225 per pupil.
“Tony firmly believes education is our pathway back to middle class prosperity,” the superintendent’s campaign declares. “To rebuild our economy and restore the American dream, every child must be a graduate ready for college or a career, and re-investing in education will help get us there.”
That’s bold talk these days — especially for a state official who is at odds with a powerful governor, and who faces a determined challenge from a veteran legislator who is backed by key players such as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
But Evers is asking voters to make a bold choice in favor of public education — and the budget priorities that sustain strong public schools.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com