With election day coming up next Tuesday, education activists on both sides of the aisle are anticipating the outcome of one of the biggest races - that for state superintendent of public instruction.
Republican Assemblyman Don Pridemore is challenging incumbent Tony Evers. Pridemore sits on a number of education committees in the state Legislature. Though the superintendent race is nonpartisan, Pridemore has ties to the Tea Party and supports local control of schools. Evers has been state superintendent for four years. He’s a former teacher, principal and district administrator with backing from teachers unions.
"Don Pridemore is in favor, like a lot of Republicans and those who tend to support Tea Party ideals, of a leaner government of more efficiencies to be gained in schools," says education journalist Erin Richards. "I think Tony Evers has been more along the lines of supporting at least enough funding in schools that we don't have to keep seeing teachers laid off or programs cut for kids."
Richards calls Pridemore the "underdog candidate" with less name recognition - and fewer funds raised so far - than his opponent. He has served in government for about a decade and comes from a business background. Richards says he's critical of the Department of Public Instruction, even calling for a "complete audit" of the department should he be elected.
While Evers is a lifetime supporter of public schools, Richards says he does have a history of bipartisan action. He supported and worked with Governor Scott Walker on issues like the state's new teacher and principal evanluation system, but has come out against Walker's cutting of funding for schools and desire to expand the the school voucher program in the state.
"Tony's platform is we need to compromise, we need to sometimes work together on issues and we nee to sometimes not," Richards says. "Don Pridemore is much more of your more conservative, more streamlined, local control is key, teachers unions should not have the power they had before. They are very different candidates."
Richards, who covers education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says these candidates represent often opposing viewpoints on the biggest issues facing education today.
Vouchers allow children at lower performing schools who meet certain income limits to have the chance to potentially get a better education at a private school, Richards explains. There is a currently a voucher system in Milwaukee, as well as a two-year-old program in Racine. Governor Walker wants to expand the program to nine other cities in Wisconsin, where some schools are reportedly doing poorly.
Richards says Evers is altogether against the expansion of vouchers. Pridemore is in favor of school vouchers and has called the program in Milwaukee successful.
"He really believes that local control is better and that competition makes the marketplace a stronger place and the more options that people have, the more that they will chose choices that work for them," Richards says.
Special needs vouchers
A more nuanced version of the voucher debate involve the special needs vouchers proposed by Governor Walker, Richards says. These would allow small number of special needs children to attend private schools versus their lower performing public schools.
Richards says many private schools say they cannot take on special needs students because they lack the resources to service them. Special needs vouchers, the argument goes, would provide private schools with a government subsidy to give them enough money to accept and serve more special needs students.
While Pridemore has not been clear on his position on special needs vouchers, Evers is against them. Richards says he believes special needs children are likely getting the best education they can in a public school system, because that system is set up to address all of their needs.
"A lot of the controversy in this whole arena is that public schools say, 'You know, you take away our resources and yet we by law are required to serve all kids, we can't choose who we serve,'" she says. "So a criticism often lobbed at private schools, especially ones that are receiving public funding, is that they're not accepting the same kinds of kids that public schools have to take."
Richards explains that there are two types of charter schools. There are those authorized by public school districts, which have a limited amount of independence. Often they still have unionized staff and district teachers.
The more controversial kind of charter schools are those that have been authorized by independent entities like UWM or Milwaukee's Common Council that have complete freedom from school districts. Richards says these schools don't have to abide by district rules, often have no unionized staff, and can implement longer school days and even weekend shifts. But these schools still get public funding.
Evers is not in favor of an expansion of independent charter schools, because he thinks the current way charters operate is working fine, Richards says. Evers also does not endorse the statewide charter school oversight board that Governor Walker would like to see established. That board would authorize more institutions like the Common Council or UWM to create more independent charters around the state.
Richards says Pridemore is not fully in support of the idea, mostly because he's in favor of local control. Richards says he would much rather see a local community make all of its own decisions about its own schools, versus having another state board attached to DPI making decisions.
Both candidates say funding for schools is a big issue and we need adequate funds to help them operate. Evers wants more money for public schools and to see the school finance formula changed in a way that would send more money to public schools. Pridemore says better funding for schools is needed, but has so far offered few clear details.
"It's a complicated issue because the governor's budget proposes sending more money to the public schools, but because the schools can't raise any more in property taxes, they can't really send any more money tot he classroom," Richards says. "Tony's against that idea. He says we need to send more money to the classroom in some way shape or form. Don is a little bit less clear on that, but he has said that he supports adequate funding for public schools."
Act 10 was a hugely controversial piece of legislation that cut funding for schools, but also in eliminating collective bargaining rights for teachers unions, gave districts tools to save money.
Richards says Evers has not been a fan of Act 10, as it created a "rough road" for the teachers, principals and superintendents he hears from as state superintendent. While it helped some schools to balance their budgets, Act 10 also affected morale among teachers in many districts.
"The idea of supporting public schools and supporting teachers as professionals is something that he's very keen to push and so navigating that aftermath of Act 10 is something that he is keen on talking about," Richards says. "How do we raise the profession of teachers and how do we make them feel appreciated in their jobs and know that people support public schools?"
Pridemore favored the passage of Act 10 as a good business decisions. He felt it broke the monopoly that unions had on Wisconsin and that it was an important step to take.
"Anytime there's an issue that makes it seem like one company or one entity has a monopoly over the schools, Don Pridemore tends to not like that," Richards says. "He would much rather see local decisions be made, down at the local school board level, and Act 10 certainly allowed for that."