Get To Know The Candidates for Wisconsin State Superintendent

Feb 15, 2017

Incumbent Tony Evers will face off with challenger Lowell Holtz for the position of state Superintendent. 

The two men won the most votes in February's primary race. Wisconsin voters will make their final decision during the general election on Tuesday, April 4. 

Get to know more about the remaining candidates below...

Original post: February 15, 2017

On February 21, Wisconsin voters will narrow the field of candidates for state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Three men are vying for the job.

So, let’s get to know them.

Tony Evers says his work is a long way from finished.

“Have we solved every problem? Absolutely not,” says Evers, who has led Wisconsin schools for the last eight years. “We still need to make sure that we bring people together.”

During Evers’ tenure, the state has boasted of having one of the nation’s top ten graduation rates, yet it also has the biggest graduation gap between black and white students.

And nowhere are disparities more glaring than in Milwaukee – somewhere the incumbent says he’s spent a lot of time, working alongside district leaders.

Current state Superintendent Tony Evers

“I’ve spent many hours and days in Milwaukee, really working to provide the professional development and structure that these schools need to succeed,” he says. “I believe our efforts around changing the school start date here was a big one. Even though it may seem small on the surface, we’re actually going to be giving kids a chance to catch up.”

In addition to overseeing Wisconsin’s schools, Evers has played several roles on the national education scene. Leaders from two of Wisconsin’s teachers unions – AFT Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Education Association Council – both cited Evers’ experience in letters endorsing his reelection.

But, the incumbent won’t be able to rest on his laurels. In his quest for a third term, Evers faces two challengers.

John Humphries
Credit Humphries For Schools official campaign website

John Humphries has a background in biology, yet his own set of experiences working for the state. He joined the staff at the Department of Public Instruction in 2004, under then-superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster.

“It showed me that there was a great passion and interest in helping kids have better life outcomes,” Humphries says of the experience.

Before joining DPI, Humphries worked in a variety of school settings - from correctional facilities such as Lincoln Hills, to high-performing districts like Middleton. He says that range of experience has exposed him to different ways in which Wisconsin can do better – including, in reading.

Humphries says he’d help teachers learn proven strategies to help all kids read – such as Minnesota’s successful “PRESS model.”

“First, you learn to decode, then you get more fluent and learn some more vocabulary. And then you’re better at comprehending the text that you’re reading,” Humphries explains. “It’s a very systematic way of addressing learning deficits, in a way that brings all kids forward.”

Humphries highlights endorsements from Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), who has served as chair of the Assembly Education Committee, as well as Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee) on his official campaign website.

Lowell Holtz
Credit Twitter

Another challenger – Lowell Holtz – insists students achieve, when they’re in the right environment.

“It’s about the community of collaboration,” says Holtz, who retired from his post as superintendent of the Whitnall School District in January of 2016.

Before Whitnall, Holtz led Beloit’s public school district. It had been on the failing schools list four years in a row, prior to his arrival. Holtz says he faced a tall task when he took over as superintendent. The district had been threatened with sanctions over violence, disciplinary issues and low achievement.

Within one year, Beloit fell off the failing list; Holtz says it all came down to making school a fun, safe place to be. It’s a strategy he hopes to replicate, if elected to statewide office.

“You focus on the climate of your district and of your schools, where it’s all about safety, it’s all about culture,” he says. “The kids go from the expectation of not being successful, to the expectation of, ‘you are going to achieve as a high rate, we’re going to support you and get you there.’”

Organizations including the Wisconsin Family Action PAC are supporting Holtz in his bid for the post of schools chief, according to his official campaign website – as is his former student, UW-Madison Badger football standout Joel Stave:

The primary for Superintendent of Public Instruction takes place Tuesday, February 21. The top two vote-getters will go on to the general election in April.

READ: How Do Wisconsin Students Judge The Candidates For State Superintendent?

Before that, there’s a lot to know about these candidates and their plans for Wisconsin’s schools and students.

Here are some of their views and plans, which they discussed with WUWM throughout the primary campaign season.

What are the candidates' plans for low-performing schools?

Wisconsin judges school performance based on a few metrics: how are students scoring on standardized tests? Have those scores improved over time? How many students graduate?

Historically, the consequences for low performance have varied. Most recently, Republican legislators crafted a program that would put “failing” schools under the control of an independent commissioner. Last year, one-third of Milwaukee’s public schools were at risk of qualifying for the “Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program,” or OSPP.

What’s next for those schools?

If it’s up to incumbent Tony Evers, low performers will get more resources:

"In many cases, kids who are underachieving need huge amounts of support. A-we have to make sure that class sizes are reasonable in the kindergarten and 4-K arena, and that’s a financial issue. But I­ think more importantly, we have to make sure that instead of chasing test scores, we also have opportunities for teachers to build positive relationships with kids."

Evers says he has lobbied for more resources in his most recent state budget proposal. He advocates for shifting funds to districts that educated the neediest kids.

As for challenger John Humphries, he has unveiled a plan for low-performing schools that some say looks similar to OSPP. It would also seek new operators for low performing schools.

What’s different, Humphries says, is that instead of letting the county executive hire the new leadership – which was the plan for Milwaukee -- Humphries insists that job should belong to the parents. Under his plan, the new operators could potentially come from within the struggling district itself:

"It goes right along with helping schools do a better job of instruction. Teachers, administrators, school boards and parents are all looking for an advocate at dpi. Someone who’s willing to tell the tough story of what’s happening academically, but also offer important supports to schools, so they can improve."

Humphries also says he wants to revamp the state’s report card for schools. He says benchmarks for performance should look the same across all districts, something he doesn’t see in the current system.

Challenger Lowell Holtz says he has first-hand experience with turning around struggling schools, from his time as head of the Beloit district.

Holtz attributes the accomplishment of moving that district off the failing schools list to collaboration. He says real change will happen when the state starts spending money on creating opportunities within communities:

"Every single year we spend over $503 million on dropouts. That money should be used on improving academic opportunities for our kids. We really need to work in collaboration with our communities and business leaders to turn around our failing systems, because we need to reallocate those dollars into an educational system that gives our kids the opportunities for success, and obviously future employment."

Holtz says he favors training programs that also help local businesses meet their workforce needs.

How will candidates assist Wisconsin's teachers?

Like much of the rest of the country, Wisconsin faces a teacher shortage.

It’s a two-fold problem. More teachers are leaving the field of education. And fewer young adults are entering the profession.

What’s causing the shortage? Researchers – including folks at the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum – point to increased stress and time demands, as well as effects of Act 10, which weakened the power of teachers as a group.

So, how can the head of the state’s public education system help fill the teacher pipeline?

Incumbent Tony Evers says he wants to help build up the profession, symbolically and monetarily:

“We politicize the profession so much. We have to change that – and that’s free. We have to stop denigrating teachers, and start supporting them. The heroic work we see teachers do is just outstanding.  And frankly, at some point in time, we have to recognize that with monetary compensation.”

Evers says over the past six years or so, teacher pay across Wisconsin has decreased about 2.5 percent.

Challenger John Humphries sees higher teacher turnover being a result of frustration over not knowing how to deal with the changing classroom. He says if elected, he’ll provide more professional development – he’ll organize the department staff so it can help teachers share what they have found works best in the classroom:

“DPI can’t be an agency just of regulation, but has to be an agency of best practices – the things that are really usable to teachers. So, DPI staff should be making sure that the training that we provide to teachers is of the highest quality.”

As for challenger Lowell Holtz, he says teachers need more of a voice in their own districts. He says he’ll advocate for Wisconsin to use the country’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to give school communities – including teachers -- more power in deciding how to run their schools:

“Every school district is unique with different strengths and needs. And our local school districts need to have the freedom to provide the best educational possibility for their children. ESSA gives a lot more power back to the local district, and I do believe in the need to return local control for districts, and eliminate the overreach of the federal government.”

Holtz says he envisions giving teachers the ability to better direct their own classrooms, by allowing them to ignore federal guidelines such as the Common Core academic benchmarks.

All three candidates say they know that Wisconsin won’t solve its teacher shortage overnight.

How will candidates address students' mental health challenges?

Mental health is becoming a weighty topic of conversation among educators these days: How can we help kids who deal with trauma? What’s being done to prevent bullying? How can we teach kids social skills, and the ability to manage their emotions?

What will these candidates do around mental health?

Tony Evers says, in his work across the state, he’s noticed a tendency for teachers to focus exclusively on academics. And while closing the achievement gap in math and English is important, Evers says, he wants to encourage educators to approach the whole student:

“Yes, it’s important for kids to achieve at a high level, but we also have to be cognizant of their social and emotional needs. And I think that’s an important message to send. Otherwise, we do start chasing test scores and we spend our time kind of comparing and contrasting.”

Evers adds that it will be easier for teachers to widen their focus, if the state can find ways to lighten their load -- for example, eliminating excess paperwork.

John Humphries cites his background in alternative education, where he worked with kids who’ve experienced trauma. So, he says he’s seen firsthand the different ways it can manifest itself in students’ behavior – and how that behavior can affect the larger classroom.

Humphries says, one of the things he wants to do, is to better equip teachers to handle a classroom with diverse needs:

“Our teacher training programs haven’t done an adequate job of preparing our teachers to deal with these challenges. So, if I walk into a classroom two or three years from now, I would hope to see teachers effectively using classroom management strategies that my Department of Public Instruction has shared with them.”

Lowell Holtz points out that, along with safety, physiological needs are among the most basic. He says he believes the current system doesn’t always provide students with a nurturing environment – which can lead to low performance.

He says he wants to make schools a safe place for kids:

“Low-performing schools aren’t the fault of teachers, parents or students -- they simply are the fault of the system that’s currently in place. And my strong, strong passion is our kids. The focus in a nonpartisan position like this, has to be on our students and their future.”

State leaders are already setting the stage for whichever candidate becomes superintendent, to help him address issues related to mental health.

Gov. Walker has asked the legislature to set aside more than $5 million to help schools provide related screenings and services – as well as hire more social workers.