When Wisconsinites created the position of state superintendent of public instruction, the wise decision was made to make it an elected post. There is no question that the official who is charged with delivering on the fundamental right to education should be responsive to the voters of Wisconsin.
Nor is there any question that the position, like the state Supreme Court, should be elected on a nonpartisan basis.
Despite all the wrangling over education issues since the election of Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s governor, there is still something of a bipartisan consensus when it comes to the necessity not just of great public schools but of a sufficient financial commitment to maintain them.
Walker has made deep cuts in public education funding, but now he is facing pressure not just from Democrats but from Republican state senators who seek to increase spending on schools. And the governor’s proposal to undermine public education with the sort of voucher scheme that is promoted by his wealthiest out-of-state donors might actually fail — or at least be radically cut back — due to opposition from some of the same senators.
The notion that Democrats and Republicans can work together, along with independents and third-party backers, on behalf of public education is not an impossible dream. It can happen in Wisconsin if the right people are in the right positions. And there is no question that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers is the right person.
When Gov. Walker and his allies swept to power in 2010, Evers was the odd man out, a progressive educator seeking to defend public education at a time when it seemed that the state had been lost to the candidates of the Michigan, Arkansas and Texas billionaires and millionaires who want to make Wisconsin a voucher state.
But Evers remained the calm, cool and responsible administrator he has always been: asking the tough questions, proposing alternatives, keeping conversations open with educators, administrators, school board members and parents and students across the state. He has been combative when necessary but conciliatory when possible.
We wish we could say that Evers has won every fight. That hasn’t been the case. But he has won more often than most observers thought possible in the first months of 2011. And he has plans to do a great deal more as an engaged superintendent who seeks to keep the DPI in the thick of debates about closing the achievement gap, curriculum innovations, the unique challenges faced by rural and urban schools and the broad goal of maintaining Wisconsin’s status as an education leader nationally.
Evers decries Walker’s misguided budgetary assaults on public education as a bad deal for students, parents, teachers and taxpayers. And he is outspoken in his opposition to voucher schemes, saying: “If we’re about best practices, I’m not quite sure we can say it’s best practice to expand vouchers across the state of Wisconsin, especially in school districts that don’t want them.”
Evers’ challenger, state Rep. Don Pridemore, R-Hartford, is on the other side of these issues. He’s a “yes” man for the governor who often does not even know what he has agreed to back. Confronted at a recent forum with questions about a scheme to establish a statewide charter school board that shifts power to gubernatorial appointees rather than elected school boards, Pridemore declared that he has “never favored” the creation of unelected boards. Yet that’s a central component of a Walker plan that he says he supports.
Pridemore is an ardent champion of vouchers, and says he will back them to his “dying day.”
We hope that Pridemore lives a long and healthy life. But his determination to back a bad idea, even after evidence that voucher schemes have failed in cities around the country, is not just unsettling. It puts him on the fringe of education policy debates that many Republicans have engaged with in far more responsible ways.
Evers has reached out to those Republicans, forming real coalitions that cross lines of partisanship and ideology and that unite Wisconsinites from rural, urban and suburban communities in support of public education. While he supports a plan to raise the annual per-pupil spending limit by $225, Evers recently hailed a proposal by Republican state Sens. Mike Ellis and Luther Olsen to raise the limit by $150 as a move “in the right direction.”
With almost four decades of experience working in public education — four years of it as Wisconsin’s top education official — Evers knows that you can’t always get everything that is needed to build and strengthen Wisconsin’s great public schools. He’s flexible and always on the watch for opportunities to build alliances that will get as much done as possible. And in these contentious times, that’s precisely what Wisconsin students and communities need.
Tony Evers has our enthusiastic support for a second term as state superintendent of public instruction.
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