Gov. Scott Walker in his re-election bid is planning to “aggressively” stake a claim that is sure to draw fire from his biggest critics while speaking to a key issue for voters.
“I’m affirming the fact that I’m a pro-education governor,” Walker said in an interview Monday. “I’m going to continue to be a pro-education governor and build off of that.”
Walker wants Wisconsin to have the nation’s highest high school graduation rate by 2023, a goal that has grown tougher since Walker took office.
In 2011, the state’s 87.2 percent graduation rate ranked second in the nation, according to Education Week. In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, Wisconsin’s graduation rate rose to 88.2 percent, but other state rates grew faster, knocking Wisconsin down to ninth place.
Wisconsin also had the third-lowest graduation rate among black students and the highest black-white achievement gap, at 28.5 percentage points.
Walker said one way he plans to achieve his 2023 goal is by setting aside money in the next budget to introduce youth apprenticeship programs in seventh and eighth grades.
“I just know there’s a moral imperative for kids to graduate from high school, but there’s also an economic imperative,” Walker said. “As our workforce needs grow we’ve got to get these students ready for the next step in their career.”
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Walker said he won’t call for reducing academic standards to achieve higher graduation rates. Instead, he said a continued focus on connecting subjects such as math and science to real-world career applications “will help keep kids interested and focused.”
Walker’s comments drew criticism from the Democratic candidates vying to challenge him. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said more than a million voters have agreed to raise their own property taxes through school referendums in recent years because Walker has failed to adequately fund K-12 education.
“Scott Walker can make all the promises he wants, but Wisconsinites know when it comes to public education the emperor is wearing no clothes,” Evers said. “By making campaign promises he can’t keep, Scott Walker is just setting our kids up for failure.”
Walker has touted his latest budget increasing K-12 aid to schools to a record dollar amount, though the $5.9 billion still falls about $300 million short of where it would have been if the state’s 2010-11 funding level had increased at the rate of inflation.
Walker notes school districts were able to save far more than that amount because of his signature 2011 Act 10 law, which mostly eliminated collective bargaining for teachers and other public sector workers. After the law passed, school districts increased employee pension and health insurance contributions to help offset about $900 million in cuts to K-12 education in Walker’s first budget.
Walker plans to highlight his education record, including a six-year tuition freeze at the University of Wisconsin System, which is getting about $132 million less in state aid than in 2010, with a new television ad launching Tuesday. The ad, featuring a Racine teacher who says “Walker gets it,” is his sixth of the campaign.
Education has emerged as a key issue in the election. A March Marquette Law School Poll found 63 percent of registered voters thought increasing school funding was more important than cutting taxes, a shift from 2013 when 49 percent said cutting taxes was more important.