With just one week left until election day, the candidates for state superintendent presented their cases in Milwaukee on Tuesday. Incumbent Tony Evers and challenger Lowell Holtz spoke in front of a crowd at Marquette Law School.
The two men talk differently about a variety of issues – including school choice. But they agree on this: the state must do more to boost Milwaukee’s public schools.
Name almost any issue in education right now, and it’s hot here: vouchers, charters, school spending, teacher recruitment. MPS remains among the lowest-performing districts in the state -- and it’s been that way for awhile. At least, as moderator and Milwaukee education guru Alan Borsuk pointed out, as long as Evers has been in office.
“You’ve been superintendent eight years, you were deputy eight years before that,” Borsuk said, addressing the incumbent. “One of the things Dr. Holtz has said is, ‘he’s had his chance to make things better in Milwaukee.’ Why aren’t things better in Milwaukee?”
But, he adds, policies can work only so much magic, until the focus needs to shift to addressing social-emotional learning factors that weigh on thousands of students.
“We have made some progress -- not as much as we’d like,” Evers said. “But we also have to recognize…that abject poverty, and difficult home situations, and parents working two or three jobs – that isn’t always conducive to kids learning well.”
“The failure isn’t the fault of the kids, the failure isn’t the fault of the teachers, or the principals -- it’s the system that’s in place,” challenger Lowell Holtz shot back, in response.
Holtz, a former district superintendent in Beloit and Whitnall, says MPS and its superintendent, Darienne Driver, need state help. If elected, Holtz says he’d put together a group to work with the district community to find creative solutions.
“You need to put in a support team that’s going to work with the community, with the neighborhood, with the parents, with the businesses,” he told the audience. “You need to have one that works on the inside that focuses on the climate and the culture and raises the bar, raises the expectations.”
Similar plans were the subject of controversy earlier in Holtz’s campaign. Reports surfaced ahead of the February primary that Holtz had offered to let former challenger, John Humphries, head up an MPS team, if he dropped out of the race.
No matter who wins the race for schools chief, moderator Alan Borsuk says the winner could have more of an impact on MPS than in the past.
Borsuk explained that a new national education law is just taking effect, and it might shift more power to the states.
“Education is a state function, by the state constitution, and the state role is still going to be important, and that is split between the legislature, the governor – but not, in a small way, by the superintendent,” he explains. “So it will make a difference whether Dr. Holtz or Dr. Evers wins – they’re going to run much different departments.”
The winner of next Tuesday’s primary will hold the head office at the Department of Public Instruction for at least the next four years.