Tony Evers speaks in Milwaukee, June 1, 2010. (Flickr/WisPolitics.com)
Debates about education policy often get muddled, especially at election time. Though school board contests across the country regularly touch on local elements of the fight over the future of public education, and though legislative contests frequently raise policy details, it is rare that voters in a high-profile statewide contest face an absolutely clear choice on a broad range of education concerns.
But in Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker has attacked teacher unions and hacked away at education budgets, and where Walker now proposes a sweeping expansion of a controversial vouchers scheme to shift public money to private schools, voters will have a chance to register their response Tuesday.
Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, a nonpartisan official elected four years ago, is up for reelection. And he is, for all intents and purposes, running against Walker's education agenda. Evers' campaign is blunt, ripping the governor's approach as an assault on public schools, and highlighting the fact that "Tony has stood up for Wisconsin's kids and working families, fighting back against a devastating $1.6 billion cut in state funding for education."
In the thick of the campaign leading up to Tuesday's election, Evers went so far as to appear before the legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee to call for the rejection of those portions of Walker's budget dealing with education. Noting that the governor's budget would increase state funding for voucher school initiatives by 32 percent without increasing overall school funding, Evers declared: "This has to stop. The state cannot continue to play favorites. We can and must meet our constitutional obligation to invest in all of our kids."
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Evers has been steady in his rejection of criticism of vouchers schemes that he argues have not delivered for students or communities. "To spend hundreds of millions to expand a 20-year-old program that has not improved overall student achievement, while defunding public education, is morally wrong," the superintendent has argued.
That's the opposite view from Evers' challenger, State Representative Don Pridemore, a Republican closely aligned with Walker. Backed by GOP legislative leaders, Pridemore is an ardent advocate for vouchers who echoes the arguments made by conservative critics of public-sector unions and the teachers who are active with them.
The Evers-Pridemore race offers what the Associated Press has correctly identified as a "stark choice" for voters on a range of education issues that begins with the voucher debate but does not end there.
Pridemore backed Walker's controversial 2011 assault on collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees, along with the governor's cuts to funding for education and public services. Evers is backed by the Wisconsin Education Association and American Federation of Teachers union locals in the state. And his campaign literature has featured images of the superintendent talking with teachers during mass rallies at the state Capitol.
At almost every turn, the candidates differ. Evers has spent 36 years as an educator, while Pridemore has not taught in a school or administered one. Evers talks about education as a tool to help young people achieve their dreams, and to promote citizenship. Pridemore talks about how his education priority is "making sure our kids are prepared for the workforce."
Pridemore wants to respond to school violence by allowing armed volunteers to patrol the hallways. Evers thinks that's a poor idea. But the core difference is with regard to the commitment states and communities bring to maintaining public schools.
Pridemore embodies not just the Walker agenda, but the vision advanced by national groups that have been criticizing spending priorities for public education and promoting vouchers. Evers embodies the classic pro-public education agenda. He doesn't just defend public education; he's gone so far as to propose during the current campaign that spending be increased by roughly $225 per pupil.
"Tony firmly believes education is our pathway back to middle class prosperity," the superintendent's campaign declares. "To rebuild our economy and restore the American Dream, every child must be a graduate ready for college or a career, and re-investing in education will help get us there."
That's bold talk these days. But Evers is asking voters to make a bold choice in favor of public education -- and of the budget priorities that sustain strong public schools.
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