Despite their differences, Mary Burke and Gov. Scott Walker have some common ground. Both talk about keeping taxes low, creating jobs and maintaining the Act 10 benefits changes for public employees.
But perhaps no issue demonstrates such a stark division between the two gubernatorial candidates more than education — a split that appeared in high relief last week when Walker called on the Legislature to repeal the Common Core State Standards.
Burke, a Madison School Board member whose election in 2012 was her first run for public office, would eliminate taxpayer funding for students to attend private schools outside of the Milwaukee and Racine voucher systems; Walker, running for a second term and considered a potential 2016 presidential contender, would tie future expansion to demand for the program.
Burke wants to make funding for schools more of a priority; Walker cut education funding
drastically in his first budget cycle, though school districts mitigated the losses by taking advantage of Walker’s Act 10 union reforms to change health insurance plans and force teachers and other public employees to pay more for pension and insurance premiums.
Burke backs the math and English Common Core standards; Walker wants to repeal them and create new ones — even if they’re similar.
For Wisconsin voters, education is a double-edged issue in gubernatorial races, says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll. Many voters have children in schools, while many pay the property taxes that fund them.
“Education is one of the perennial issues of statewide gubernatorial campaigns because it touches both every school district in the state, and there are a lot of them, and also every family,” Franklin said.
About 71 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of public schools, and 75 percent support public school teachers, according to a 2013 poll conducted by Franklin.
But there’s also support for lowering property taxes, which means less revenue for school districts if the state doesn’t increase state aid. Most of those polled want more funding in the state’s budget for schools.
Walker has kept K-12 property taxes virtually flat over the past three years and has promised to push property taxes lower in 2018 than they were in 2010.
In the past year he used unanticipated surplus revenue to drive down K-12 and technical college property taxes. Burke has said she will not allow taxes to rise or be out of line with other states.
Burke said Walker’s latest budget proposal included a “recipe for basically strangling school districts and preventing any type of innovation or improvement” because there was little additional funding included in the proposal and no increase in districts’ cap on revenue.
The final budget Walker signed bumped up revenue limits by $75 per pupil in each year of the biennium and increased aid by nearly $300 million over the biennium.
Walker declined an interview but his campaign said in crafting K-12 education policy he “will listen to parents, teachers, education leaders, legislators and others” and focus on “digital learning, broadband deployment and options for students to gain college credit while in high school.”
Vouchers, standards, accountability
Walker’s office helped draft a bill to kill Common Core that garnered support from Republicans in both the Assembly and the Senate but ultimately failed to be called for a vote.
Walker has said Wisconsin deserves to have its own “Wisconsin-specific” standards for its schools.
Burke, however, says the standards are needed to make students ready for college or careers.
Burke also is skeptical of Walker’s statewide voucher program, which provides taxpayer money to low-income students to attend participating private schools. Of the more than 3,400 applicants for the program next year, three-quarters already attended private school.
“This expansion has no plan behind it; it has no research behind it as to how it would improve student learning and has no funding behind it,” Burke said.
Burke said vouchers would remain in Milwaukee and Racine, if she is elected governor, but schools elsewhere will no longer be able to participate. She also has proposed eliminating a new income tax deduction for private school tuition expected to cost $30 million a year.
Through his campaign, Walker said he would further expand the voucher system — now capped at 1,000 students — based on demand. He has also said expansion should be tied to whether voucher students are performing as well or better than they did in public schools.
Both Burke and Walker have expressed support for drafting a bill that holds both public, private and charter schools to the same performance standards.
Legislators are meeting this summer to work on a school-accountability bill, though their initial meeting didn’t include representatives from the state’s teacher unions or the Department of Public Instruction.
Burke, the likely Democratic nominee, is a former Trek Bicycle executive and commerce secretary under Gov. Jim Doyle. But she also has dug deep roots in public schools.
Prior to joining the Madison School Board, she served as president of the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and was a major donor to its AVID/TOPS program, aimed at increasing the odds that low-income, minority students will graduate high school and attend college.
She also pledged $2.5 million for a proposed charter school run by the Urban League of Greater Madison for low-income students that ultimately was voted down by the School Board after intense debate.
Burke said her work creating AVID/TOPS is a good example of her approach to education. That experience was even more valuable, she said, than her tenure on the school board, where she oversees a 27,000-student district with a $400 million budget.
As governor, Burke said she would seek to improve the high school experience for students to decrease the number of students who drop out or leave without much direction.
“I see too much — we have either students who are not graduating or not engaged in their learning along with students who graduate but have no clear direction about their next step, and it doesn’t serve them well and it doesn’t serve the economy well,” she said.
Walker’s campaign said the governor’s approach to education is influenced by several of his closest friends who are teachers, and “each of them give the governor a unique perspective on education.”
Board role help or hurt?
The Republican Party of Wisconsin has highlighted Burke’s Madison School Board vote in June 2012 to increase property taxes by 4.95 percent. Later that year, after state aid came in higher than expected, she supported a 1.75 percent property tax increase, the maximum increase allowed under state law. She has not voted in favor of a school district budget since.
Franklin said given that’s the only elected position Burke has held, her votes on the district’s budget and on a new contract for the Madison Teachers Inc. union will be discussed in the campaign. But, Franklin said, being a public school board member also gives her a “rhetorical advantage.”
“By actually serving on the Madison School Board, she’s familiar with some of these issues and can point to how she has dealt with them and frame them from her best perspective,” he said.
But Walker can use Burke’s and the school board’s opposition to Act 10’s elimination of collective bargaining for most public employees to his advantage, he said.
“The Walker campaign can point to the fact that the Madison School Board and the Madison School District as an outlier in how (they) dealt with Act 10.”
— Reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.