Put to the test

(First published in the October 18, 2018 issue of City Pages)

In the race for governor between Scott Walker and Tony Evers, both claim to be the real candidate for education


Who is state schools Superintendent Tony Evers? According to TV ads run by Gov. Scott Walker and his allies, he’s a threat to children. “A teacher watched hardcore pornography in his classroom,” says the narrator in a Walker campaign ad. “Tony Evers should have revoked the teacher’s license but he didn’t.”

Another TV ad from the Republican Party of Wisconsin claims Evers protected other teachers who “preyed on our kids.” The ad continues, ““Another [teacher] used Snapchat to ask her student to have sex in a storage closet… Yet another teacher was caught with his pants down in the classroom. State Superintendent Tony Evers had the power to revoke their licenses but he refused.”

Politifact Wisconsin rated Walker’s ad “mostly false” and other media outlets have found these claims to be dubious. Evers, the Democrat running to unset Walker as governor in the Nov. 6 election, says the attacks fit into Walker’s modus operandi: “Divide and conquer.”

“It’s mainly about avoiding talking about his poor record,” Evers says during an interview at his campaign headquarters in Madison. “Fear-mongering.”

Scott Walker has been a juggernaut in Wisconsin politics. He’s won three elections in eight years and now wants a third term. But running a fiercely partisan campaign might not work as well for Walker as it has in the past, says Arnold Shober, political science professor at Lawrence University.

“Walker has done best when it was clear you were either with him or against him. I’m not sure this time around it’s that simple,” says Shober. “[Evers] is a hard guy to run against in the sense that he doesn’t come across as some crazy lefty who can easily be caricatured. That makes him seem level-headed and practical.”

Evers has a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctorate in educational administration from UW-Madison. Before being elected the state’s chief school officer, he served as superintendent of the Oakfield and Verona school districts and deputy state superintendent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Evers believes the key issue in this election is right in his wheelhouse.

“This race is about education,” he says. “That’s a good thing because it intersects with almost every other topic we talk about…. It all begins with education.”

If elected, Evers promises to invest more in early childhood education, increase funding to public schools and restore “respect and professionalism towards all our hard-working educators.” In his 2019-21 DPI budget, he requested a 10% increase — $1.4 billion — in school funding.

Evers says Wisconsin schools still haven’t recovered from an $800 million cut in state aid levied in Walker’s first budget. He says schools have also suffered because teachers were “devalued” by Walker’s Act 10, the 2011 law that stripped most public workers of union rights and required them to pay more towards their health care and pensions.

But Walker offers a very different account of his record. In June, he declared himself the “pro-education governor” during an interview with Wisconsin State Journal and promised Wisconsin would best the nation in high school graduation rates by 2023.

On Oct. 5, Walker toured Automation Components in Middleton for what was billed as an event to “celebrate Manufacturing Day.” The governor quickly pivoted to education, telling the crowd he’s already “put more actual dollars into schools than ever before.”

“Our reforms saved school districts across the state $3.2 billion. Tony Evers wants to get rid of those reforms. That would raise property taxes. That would take those savings and get rid of them,” Walker told reporters after the event. “Repealing those reforms would take money out of the classrooms, away from students and it would raise property taxes to pay for it.”

Walker also pledged on Oct. 15 to restore the state’s commitment to covering two-thirds of school costs — a proposal made by Evers two months ago.

If education is the defining issue in the governor’s race, will voters trust the bold reformer or the lifelong educator?

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Tony Evers

Political ads, even attack ads, do sway some voters on the fence, but it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of these messages, says Michael Franz, professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College, who has been studying political advertising for nearly two decades.

“There’s a ton of research on positive and negative ads and it’s all generally inconclusive,” Franz says. “Campaigns inject ads into the public consciousness and you may get a little boost out of it. The rest of the time, you’re airing those ads to keep up with the other side.”

The Walker campaign and outside groups backing the governor spent nearly twice as much as Evers and his allies on broadcast TV ads between Aug. 15 and Oct. 4, according to data collected by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: $9.2 million to $4.8 million.

Shober, who lives in Appleton, says there’s a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the governor’s race in his neck of the woods. He sees plenty of yard signs for Tammy Baldwin and Leah Vukmir, the candidates in this year’s U.S. Senate race. “Not so much with governor’s race. About every third house had someone’s name in front of it during the [2012] recall race. That’s not the case this time,” Shober says. “I think some of that has something to do with the candidates. Evers is not a hyperkinetic guy. Walker isn’t really either. There’s just not a lot of energy out there.”

Shober says a good turnout for Evers in Madison and Milwaukee is essential. Same with Walker in the GOP strongholds of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties. He believes Walker will win or lose based on his performance in the Fox Valley, which includes Appleton, Oshkosh, Neenah and Menasha.

“I expect this to be a very close race. Walker is an accomplished political candidate who is very in charge of his message. But he doesn’t have much room for error,” Shober says. “Evers has an opportunity to win based on his own persona and background.”

Shober says Trump exceeded expectations and “mopped up” in the Fox Valley during the 2016 presidential election. “But Trump’s approval rating has softened. So have Walker’s numbers,” Shober says.

One thing Walker doesn’t have to worry about is whether voters know him. The Oct. 10 Marquette poll found that just 2% of likely voters had not heard of Walker, compared to 20% for Evers.

But Shober says that dynamic could hurt Walker. “Walker has been a very consequential governor in Wisconsin. People have a very clear opinion of whether they like him or not. Among governors nationally, Walker has one of the smallest numbers of people who are undecided about him. That means he has less of an opportunity to persuade voters,” Shober says. “If Evers can offer something besides ‘I’m not Scott Walker’ — which was the tactic against Walker the last two times — I think he has a chance.”

Tony Evers began his education career teaching high school science in Baraboo. He moved to the Tomah school district where he quickly rose on the administrative ladder. Before he turned 30, he became principal of Tomah’s only high school.

One year, during the recession of the early 1980s, Evers noticed that about a dozen students in the small town school were routinely coming to school late. He finally asked one of the kids what was going on.

He learned the families were homeless and living in a public park. “Think about that,” Evers says. “Things weren’t going well for these families. The kids were sharing one bathroom and that’s why they were late.”

Evers says he stopped punishing the students for being late and then connected them with services to find housing and other resources. The experience stuck with him, reminding him of the positive role schools play in communities and why he wants to be Wisconsin’s next governor.

“If you get enough nurturing adults around a kid, they will succeed. I loved being a principal — working with parents, students, teachers, trying to do the right thing. I think that helped prepare me [to be governor] but it’s also part of my DNA… I like to solve problems,” says Evers. “At the end of the day, people have to think you are authentic. That you have good ideas. And know that you are trustworthy.”

Evers, 66, loves to point out that he met his wife, Kathy, in kindergarten class in Plymouth, Wis. They’ve been married 46 years, raised three kids and now have seven grandchildren.

Voters have elected Evers to the nonpartisan state schools superintendent post three times, twice since Walker was elected in 2010. He won 70 out of 72 counties in the 2017 election — five months after Wisconsin narrowly elected President Donald Trump. He was the frontrunner in the August Democratic primary race for governor and handily won the nomination with 42% of the vote against seven opponents. Evers says he’s proud to carry the Democratic banner but he’s no ideologue.

“People get frustrated because they can’t label me,” Evers says. “It’s issues that I care about.”

When Evers was superintendent of the Oakfield school district in Fond du Lac County in the early 1990s, he says he learned that schools have a way of cutting through partisan politics.

“Oakfield is a small town. Rural town. Farming community. And I had several board members who were conservative. They really believed that conservatism was the right thing. But at the end of the day, any time we had a critical decision for the best interest of kids, they were always there. Every single time,” Evers says. “That was a good learning experience for me because so many times, it’s easy to think this person is evil or not evil because of where they sit on this left-right spectrum. That’s not the way life works, especially if you want to accomplish something.”

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Scott Walker

Walker and Evers tell very different stories about the state of education in Wisconsin. In a campaign ad called “A Better Future,” Walker looks straight into the camera and says he’s “worked hard to improve education.”

“We put more money in the classroom and gave schools more control to hire the best and the brightest,” Walker says in the ad. “Tony Evers will put the unions back in charge. That’ll force school districts to pay more on overhead and less on students.”

While Walker has increased funding for education in recent years, he neglects to mention the historic cut to education he engineered in his first budget.

A July report from the Wisconsin Budget Project shows that school districts will receive $153 million less in state aid in 2019 than they did in 2011 before Walker’s nearly $800 million cut to K-12 public education funding.

If Walker had kept school funding at 2011 levels, the state would have provided $3.5 billion more in aid to public schools.

“When Gov. Walker came into office in 2011, he passed this enormous cut to schools and dug this big hole,” says Tamarine Cornelius, the author of the report. “Ever since, we’ve slowly been climbing out but we’re still not back up to levels before that big cut in terms of public dollars to school districts.”

In Walker’s 2017 budget message he boasted that “we are investing more money in education than ever before in the history of Wisconsin.”

Turns out, that’s not true either, unless you pretend inflation isn’t a thing.

Walker’s 2017-2019 budget spent $11.6 billion on education. State aid for schools, from 2009-2011, was around $10.5 billion. But accounting for inflation, the 2009-2011 funding equals $12 billion in 2018 dollars.

Nevertheless, Alec Zimmerman, communications director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, insists that Walker has put more “actual dollars” in the classroom than any previous governor: “State education funding has never been — in an actual dollars sense — this high.”

When Walker took office in 2011, the nation was still recovering from the Great Recession and state governments were reckoning with budget deficits. Walker’s initial cut to public education helped close a shortfall estimated to be $3.6 billion. He justified it by saying Act 10 gave municipalities and school districts the tools to cope with lower state aid.

Act 10 required public employees to pay more for their health care and pension costs. The law also limited public employees from bargaining on any topic besides wages. However, Act 10 capped wage increases to the consumer price index.

“People were upset about it nationally because we took the power away from the big government union bosses and put it in the hands of hardworking taxpayers,” Walker told reporters in Middleton on Oct. 5. “Local officials had their hands tied prior Act 10. We’ve changed that. We can hire based on merit. We can pay based on performance. That means we can put the best and the brightest in the classroom and in other government positions. That’s better for the taxpayers — not just in terms of savings — that’s better in terms of performance.”

One of those big government union bosses, John Matthews, former executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., says Act 10 had a disastrous effect on the teaching profession.

“School districts can’t pay teachers a decent living. There was a 40% drop of young people selecting education as their profession. Those that are graduating with a degree in education are going to Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, even Arizona,” says Matthews. “There’s a whole other group of teachers who left because they couldn’t afford the cut in pay included in Act 10.”

Matthews says public schools have been further hurt by the expansion of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, which provides a taxpayer subsidy for students to attend a private or religious school. In 2013, Republicans expanded the private school voucher system statewide. This program will cost an estimated $54.6 million in 2018-19—money taken away from public school districts.

“Walker has, in effect, created an alternative school system in Wisconsin by the state funding private schools,” says Matthews. “That’s taken a toll on public schools, too.”

When asked if he would support a raise for Wisconsin teachers, Walker said the governor “doesn’t do that.”

“A number of school districts across the state — because of our reforms — have been able to give extraordinary teachers a raise. They’ve been able to do it. That’s up to local officials,” Walker says. “Before [Act 10] they couldn’t do that. Now school districts can make investments wherever they want.”

Evers has pledged to repeal Act 10 if elected. He says the law allowed Walker to balance the budget off the backs of teachers and other public employees. He also takes issue with Walker’s claim that he will “force school districts to pay more on overhead.”

“[Paying teachers] is the biggest expense you have at a school. It’s 70-80 percent of the cost,” Evers says. “Walker’s notion of what’s fair and mine are completely different.”

The superintendent says Act 10 also stripped teachers of their dignity. “I ran into two teachers last week, in two separate situations. They were both retirees. Within 30 seconds, they were weeping,” Evers says. “[How do you] devalue and be dismissive of the people who actually do the work and expect to succeed? That’s going to take a long time to heal. That’s one of the legacies of Act 10.”

Walker is working to define the state superintendent of schools as a tax and spend liberal. “If Tony Evers is in office — it’s not personal, he and I have worked together on things, it’s just the facts — he will raise property taxes,” Walker said on Oct. 5. “He will raise income taxes on manufacturers… It’s all on the table.”

Walker has definitely cut taxes — about $8.7 billion worth since taking office. Tamarine Cornelius, from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Budget Project, found that those tax cuts have largely benefited the wealthy. “The top 1% [of income-earners] got an average tax cut of about $10,000,” says Cornelius, “while people in the bottom 20% got an average tax cut of $175.”

Cornelius says Walker also raised taxes on working families and low-income seniors by cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Homestead Tax Credit. “It’s confusing that Walker is now saying we need tax credits to keep seniors in their homes as part of this campaign,” says Cornelius. “If he thinks it’s so important, why’d he cut [the Homestead Tax Credit] in the first place?”

The Walker campaign declined to answer that question.

There does appear to be an appetite for raising taxes among voters when it comes to schools: The latest Marquette Law School poll found that 57% of voters would prefer increasing spending on public schools rather than reducing property taxes.

Evers calls Walker’s assertion that he’s pro-education a “farce.” He notes that 4-year-old kindergarten classes in Milwaukee are crammed with as many as 39 kids and points out that 1 million state residents have voted to raise their property taxes in support of school initiatives since Walker became governor.

“We can’t survive like this,” says Evers.

Dylan Brogan is a reporter with Isthmus, Madison’s weekly newspaper, where this article originally appeared.