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Nine-year-old Lila Thousand hummed “cheeeeeese” through a wide smile as her father, Mike, and a gymnasium full of parents snapped photos of the fourth-grader and her counterparts surrounding the governor of Wisconsin, Mineral Point Elementary School’s guest for the morning.

Walker’s visit to the Iowa County school earlier this month was his 44th to a public school this year — about as many schools of any kind the governor toured in his first five years combined.

It was during those years the Republican governor and lawmakers earned the scorn of many public school advocates by essentially eliminating collective bargaining for public school teachers by enacting the law known as Act 10, cutting funding and freezing school board members’ ability to raise property taxes to pay for school costs, while at the same time expanding public funding for private school vouchers.

But this year, Walker has won support from some of his previous foes, including state Superintendent Tony Evers and groups representing public schools, by proposing a big increase in public school funding. Walker says that was made possible by policies set forth in previous budgets and legislation.

“There’s no doubt we’ve had a very concentrated effort on making sure that multiple times a week we are in schools in all parts of the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. “I love seeing the students, particularly with my youngest now graduated from college … But secondly … (the effort is) for us to stress the importance of the investment we’ve made.”

Political observers said Walker’s emphasis on public education is smart politics — particularly for a governor poised to run for re-election as opinion polls show most Wisconsinites want more money for public schools and more disapprove of his job performance than approve of it. And if his visit to Mineral Point to sign a bill the students lobbied for is any indication, it might be working.

“For Lila, this has been huge,” Mike Thousand, a milking equipment operator who lives in Mineral Point, said of Walker’s visit. “I personally think he’s in a difficult position. There’s an understanding that we are a publicly funded school but there’s limited funds, so he has to find a way to best get those out to the schools ... it’s tough to figure out the best method to the madness. I think it’s important that he comes out. It forges a relationship here — (for us) to know it’s not all about what he’s trying to take away.”

But there are challenges for Walker. Last week Assembly Republicans introduced their own plan to boost K-12 spending for the two years beginning July 1. Advocates for public schools, having already endorsed Walker’s plan, sent a letter to lawmakers on Friday asking that they not be forced to choose between the competing plans.

And Democrats remain convinced Walker’s newfound support for public schooling is insincere.

‘A long way to go’

“I think after his failed presidential bid, he’s attempting to fool Wisconsinites into believing this is about something other than his own political ambitions,” said Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, who is a longtime member of the Assembly Education Committee. “Giving back some of the money that they took is not going to repair the damage (Republicans) have done — we’ve got a long way to go to fix what they broke.”

Pope said Walker’s previous cuts and moves to reduce teachers’ say in their workplace conditions have “wounded” the profession, and the current budget isn’t likely to repair the relationship.

“We celebrate this in one way, but in another way we’re also disappointed that not only our governor, but our Legislature continues to play games and continues to play politics,” said Ron Martin, a middle school teacher in Eau Claire and president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. “It’s sad that this is an election year and our governor is all of a sudden an education governor.”

‘He’s being responsive’

This year’s focus on public schools, which includes $649 million in new per-pupil funding, comes after three budgets that cut or froze public school spending, and expanded the number of families who could enroll children in private schools through taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said he and others who advocate for public schools are hoping Walker’s focus remains beyond this budget cycle should he earn a third term.

“I think he’s being responsive to the public around the issue of public schools needing resources,” Bales said. “The public is concerned about their schools and they want it resourced better than they had been. It certainly helps him to be responsive when he’s heading into an election as well.”

Bales said previous state budgets strained public schools, but he doesn’t think the past will prevent support for Walker’s current budget.

“There were stress points for years over the diminishing resources which put schools in a difficult spot. We acknowledged the state was in a difficult spot and we have been doing a lot to accommodate (the state), feeling that when the time came, the resources would improve,” Bales said.

“You don’t look at an effort to increase resources and say, ‘Gee thanks but what about the past?’ I think we’re grateful. It’s greatly needed in the schools.”

Walker also said over the years he has heard more school administrators say they have been able to use the Act 10 collective bargaining law to benefit school districts by saving them health care and pension costs and thereby keeping property taxes down without the confines of union contracts.

“I think superintendents and school board members in particular had even prior to this year’s budget been generally increasingly over the years appreciative,” Walker said. “They have a much more intimate, close, positive relationship now post-Act 10. Because they felt with the contract and everything else, it was a fairly adversarial relationship prior to Act 10.”

Martin disputed Walker’s assessment, saying superintendents are afraid to work with teachers because it could be perceived as bargaining.

Education and politics

Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor, said Walker’s approval ratings don’t provide as much of a cushion as he’s had in past election cycles, and visiting schools and providing more money for schools might rebuild public support.

Walker’s new budget proposal is the first since his failed presidential bid and signals that his previous “fiscal austerity” approaches to budgeting may be nearing an end, Burden said.

“Now there is a sense that it is time to ‘reinvest’ or return some of the savings back to areas that have been hardest hit. Both K-12 and university education have taken some significant hits in recent years,” Burden said. “These are areas of concern that even Republican legislators from conservative districts hear about from their constituents. So both Governor Walker and members of the Legislature would like to earn back some good will by supporting education.”

Charles Franklin, Marquette Law School Poll director, said a March poll showed 80 percent of those responding supported increased state funding for public schools — which nearly mirrored the 78 percent that opposed Walker’s proposed $127 million cut for schools in his 2015-17 budget that was proposed amid his run for president and was later rejected by Republican lawmakers.

Franklin said 2016 poll data show 57 percent responding said their public schools received too little money while 30 percent said the state’s support is about right. And only 7 percent said their schools were getting too much money.

“So the overall evidence is that there is very substantial support for state funding of public schools,” Franklin said.

‘Changed the climate’

Mineral Point Elementary School principal Matt Renwick, who previously worked in Wisconsin Rapids for more than a decade, said that while the passage of Act 10 “changed the climate” for public schools, Walker’s new focus on public schools could ease some of the tension.

“Any time you can bring a sitting governor into a school, that’s a treat. Putting all politics aside, I think that’s cool,” he said while Walker chatted with Renwick’s son. “I think to put a face with the kids that finances and the budget affects — I think cannot hurt. Any time we can bring him in to see the kids and how excited they are to meet him, hopefully that has some influence (on budgeting).”

Walker has visited two more schools since being in Mineral Point on June 1. He’s scheduled another event on Monday in Sheboygan.

Competing GOP plans

Assembly Republicans introduced last week their own K-12 spending plan that counters Walker’s proposal, which Senate Republicans support.

The Assembly proposal has a smaller increase in funding that is paid to districts on a per-student basis than what Walker proposed and an increase in the amount of property taxes districts that have low-caps on their revenue limits can raise.

Bales said public school officials rallied around Walker’s proposal, but now feel like they are being pitted against each other. Groups advocating for public schools sent a letter to Walker and lawmakers Friday asking them to support both proposals.

“It’s not helpful to sort of seduce district leadership into picking sides,” Bales said. “(Budget) delays don’t help us either and I think there are places for compromise, and dividing and pitting districts against another isn’t going to be productive for education in the end.”

Walker said he’s going to continue to lobby lawmakers to support his funding increase.

“I’m going to do what I’ve done since (proposing it), I’m going to go off to schools across the state to remind people how important this is for student success,” Walker said.

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