"It's so quiet, it's deafening."
That's how Bert Grover, the former state superintendent of public instruction, sums up the current superintendent race.
Grover, who served three terms from 1981 to 1993, says you could go down the main drag of any Wisconsin city and 98 percent of the people asked wouldn't be able to name the candidates for superintendent.
"It's a very important race that's coming up, but it's kind of sad in a sense," said Grover, speaking from his home in Gresham, between Green Bay and Wausau. "Not very many people are interested and most people don't know the issues."
L. Allen Phelps, UW-Madison professor of educational leadership and policy analysis, agrees.
"I've lived here 20 years and it just seems like there's not a lot of real significant interest in the state superintendent's race this year," he said. "I'm not quite sure why except for the fact that people seem to be focused on other issues right now."
Tony Evers, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the last eight years, and virtual schools advocate Rose Fernandez easily emerged from a field of five candidates in the Feb. 17 primary. Evers led with 35 percent, while Fernandez had 31 percent.
Despite his small margin of victory in the primary, Evers has the backing of the 98,000-member state teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), which makes him the favorite in the April 7 general election. The union backed current Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster as well as her predecessor, John Benson.
WEAC launched a big television ad campaign Friday to promote its candidate. Since the start of the campaign, according to campaign finance reports filed Monday, WEAC's political action committee has spent more than $500,000 in TV and radio buys in support of Evers.
Fernandez, who has grassroots and conservative support and last month got the endorsement of the Wisconsin State Journal, is running as the "outsider."
While there are subtle differences in their positions, both candidates support charter schools, online learning and merit pay for teachers, issues that can be polarizing.
"We agree on the fact that we need to keep children at the center of our decision-making," Evers said.
But Fernandez favors retention of the qualified economic offer or QEO - the controversial law that allows school districts to effectively cap the pay of Wisconsin teachers without going to arbitration - and Evers backs Gov. Jim Doyle's call to end it.
Liberals say the QEO unfairly holds down teacher pay, while conservatives say it keeps a lid on property taxes.
Fernandez calls it a protection for the Wisconsin taxpayer. "I think we have great danger as we move forward of making the schoolchildren of Wisconsin the enemy of our taxpayer," she said. "When that happens none of us will like the result."
Evers argues that the QEO is fundamentally unfair. It not only keeps teacher wages across the state artificially deflated, he said, but it prevents Wisconsin from hiring the best and brightest teachers available.
He said elimination of the QEO should be done in concert with a wide-ranging discussion of revenue controls, arbitration law and tax policy: "We've slipped below the national average now and that's not where we want to be if we want to maintain and retain and hire the best."
Evers has made his educational experience a centerpiece of his campaign. On leave from his job as deputy to Burmaster, Evers, 57, has worked as a teacher, principal, district superintendent and regional administrator over the course of 34 years in education. A former superintendent of the Verona Area School District, he became deputy superintendent in 2001 after finishing third in the primary election behind Burmaster and Linda Cross. Burmaster chose not to run for re-election and will become the president of Nicolet College in Rhinelander.
Born and raised in Plymouth, Evers earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees at UW-Madison. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Madison and have three adult children.
Fernandez, 51, got her nursing degree in 1979 and worked at Milwaukee Children's Hospital. She later earned a master's degree in pediatric nursing from UW-Madison and returned to work at the hospital, now named the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, as a patient care manager.
Fernandez left nursing in 2001 to open her own business with her husband, Javier, a firefighter in Waukesha. The business, RollNRack, manufactures safety equipment for the fire service. The couple live in Mukwonago with their five children, ages 16, 15, 10, 9 and 7.
Fernandez decided to run for superintendent after getting involved as a parent activist on behalf of children attending "virtual" or online schools, she said in an interview. Fernandez's older children go to Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha and her younger three attend the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, a public charter school operated by the Northern Ozaukee School District.
Fernandez recently stepped down as president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, which battled the Department of Public Instruction last year after the agency sought a court ruling to shut down a charter school operated by the Northern Ozaukee School District, near Milwaukee.
"I led the parent-teacher-administrator coalition and saw DPI at its worst, unfortunately, as an obstructionist bureaucracy that stood in the way of innovation and refused to talk to the superintendents who ran these extraordinarily good schools," Fernandez said.
The parents involved valued having the choice within public education for their children, she said. "They found a new and exciting way to do it and couldn't believe that our state would fight to close great public schools."
The state superintendent is responsible for governing the public schools, administering state and federal aid and offering guidance to teachers and administrators. The superintendent crafts a spending request every two years to run DPI and provide state aid to public schools, which is subject to approval by the Legislature.
UW-Madison's Phelps said the position isn't as powerful as it could be, because there is still widespread support for local control over elementary and secondary schools. "There isn't any significant interest in terms of state leadership or state funding kind of driving more K-12 educational policy," he said. "They want to leave those decisions about what's up in the curriculum and what's being taught in elective subjects at the high school level, for example, up to the local folks."
The DPI also sets state standards and assessments for various academic subjects but the state assessments aren't particularly robust when it comes to comparing them to the standards in other states, Phelps added.
At a debate before the Downtown Rotary Club on March 11, Fernandez, claiming that state educational standards fall toward the bottom of the pack nationally, said Wisconsin needs to have higher standards for student achievement.
Evers said DPI is in the process of making sure its standards are the highest in the nation, adding that the department recently had a summit that brought in business leaders from around the state who recommended what eighth-graders and 12th-graders should be competent in.
When it comes to online and charter schools, Fernandez is an unabashed fan, while Evers' support is more tempered. Such alternatives to the traditional public schools are generally resisted by teachers unions.
Charter schools in Wisconsin operate under the purview of school districts, but usually have more autonomy than standard public schools in how they do things. Opponents of charter schools say they drain money and talent from the system. They also maintain that because charter schools are founded by an enthusiastic group of parents who are interested in a specific area - whether music, art or phonics - once their children graduate and move on, the schools are all but abandoned.
"In the last eight years we have expanded the number of charter schools in the state of Wisconsin through our leveraging of federal funds, from 40 to over 200," Evers said. "I do support the concept and we have proven we support it by allocating those resources."
Evers also backs merit pay but supports a voluntary licensing system implemented within the last few years. Under this program, a candidate who seeks a license must demonstrate an advanced level of proficiency and submit a video of exemplary practice as it relates to student achievement. Salaries for teachers with the license are bargained locally but the state provides a $2,000-a-year stipend for five years for teachers with the credential.
Fernandez, if elected, said she would work with the Legislature to put a merit pay system in place that isn't based on a teacher's training and certification, but on student achievement.
"We have to have compensation tied to evaluation with concrete outcomes that measure student learning and reward teachers based on their performance in the classroom," she said at a March 20 debate with Evers broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television.
Evers does not support linking merit pay directly to student performance: "There are just too many variables that go into that achievement, and we don't have a sophisticated enough assessment system to kind of ferret out how much of the students lack of achievement is due to poverty at home, how much of it has to do with the fact that he or she doesn't speak English as a first language, and how much of it is the teacher input."