The April 4 vote for state superintendent of schools

Tony Evers faces challenger Lowell Holtz, with an uneven past and strongly differing views

Lowell Holtz is the embodiment of the educational establishment in Wisconsin. He has a masters in educational administration at UW-Madison and a doctorate in educational leadership from Concordia University. He worked for three decades as an educator, starting as an elementary school teacher, with two stints as an elementary school principal (in the Cambridge and Peshtigo school districts) and three tours as a district superintendent (in Palmyra, Beloit, and Whitnall, the latter in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield). He earned good salaries and prospered as a traditional educator.


Lowell Holtz

Yet Holtz is now running as an insurgent candidate against incumbent state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.

After spending nearly three decades working in public schools—Holtz retired from Whitnall last year—Holtz wants to increase the number of private voucher schools (where salaries for staff are much lower), wants unlimited “free market competition” between public and private schools, and has pushed a plan to overthrow elected school boards in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Kenosha. He now opposes the Common Core standards used throughout the state, which he previously supported.


Tony Evers

Evers calls Holtz a “political opportunist” who has changed his views on education to gain the support of Republicans and conservatives who want to expand choice and charter schools. Holtz ran for state superintendent in 2009, but finished last in the primary.

Holtz, in turn, blames the achievement gap between Wisconsin’s black and white students on Evers and the state Department of Public Instruction, calling their failure to close this learning gap the “very epitome of institutionalized racism.”

In short, voters could hardly have a clearer choice in the statewide election Tuesday, April 4.

Evers likely will see heavy support from Democrats, Holtz from Republicans. There’s little the two agree on. And those differences may get all the starker, if as some expect, significant “dark money” from anonymous conservative groups buys attack ads targeting Evers in this week leading up to the election.

Certainly Evers is fearful of this. “I saw it happen in other campaigns,” he says, pointing to last November’s election, where “out of state, last-minute money in legislative campaigns absolutely destroyed candidates.”

Similar backgrounds, different beliefs

Evers is older (65 years old) than Holtz (59), taller (6’2”) than the challenger (6 foot) and thinner, favoring bicycling and stair climbing for exercise, while Holtz favors walking. Both are native cheeseheads: Evers grew up in Plymouth and Holtz in Milwaukee.

Both are married to their high school sweetheart, and both wives are educators (Susan Holtz has a doctorate in education). But while Evers’ three children attended public schools, Holtz says his children attended both public and parochial schools, citing that as a benefit of having choices for your kids.

Neither has worked in a classroom for years. For Holtz it was back in 1983, for Evers in 1979. Like Holtz, Evers has been part of the educational establishment for decades and also served as a teacher, principal and school district superintendent, before joining the DPI 16 years ago, including the last eight years as elected state superintendent.

Evers has served at a time of massive upheaval in Wisconsin, as the Act 10 law successfully passed by Gov. Scott Walker has lowered compensation for teachers and other public employees and decimated their unions. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers union, is now a shell of itself. It backs Evers, but can no longer funnel enough campaign donations to its favored pick to neutralize, much less exceed, the spending by conservative groups.

Evers blames Act 10 and the “assault on public education” for causing a shortage of teachers, particularly in rural areas, and a continuing decline in education majors at universities in the state. Act 10, he says, “pitted public employees against others and that demonizing has continued. We need to stop that. Who wants to be in a profession where you walk around with a target on your back?”

Holtz says “the climate and culture got out of hand after Act 10,” but blames DPI and Evers for the decline in respect for teachers. He says Evers is more concerned about teachers unions than teachers. Holtz seems unconcerned about a decline in pay for teachers.

“It’s not always about money,” Holtz says. He cites a never-released, “informal” survey by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards which he says found money was not the main reason teachers were leaving the profession.

“We have excellent teachers who are leaving because of the bureaucracy heaped upon them,” Holtz contends, referring to paperwork teachers must do to comply with the state Educational Effectiveness standards.

Says Evers: “DPI continues to try and lighten the load on teachers where ever possible, including a new proposal we rolled out in December to modify Educator Effectiveness, but the fact remains that Educator Effectiveness has been put in place by the legislature. It is the law.”

Evers says the expanding voucher program is siphoning money from public education to subsidize private schools. Past data has shown that as many as 75% of students getting vouchers were already attending private schools.

Holtz says “it’s good to have options” for families, adding, “I’m not afraid of competition.”

Holtz has made the state’s black-white achievement gap a major issue, but the problem is the greatest in Milwaukee, which has perhaps more voucher students than any city in the country. Yet he continues to push this as a solution to problem.

History of controversies and changing positions

Another change he favors is quite unprecedented. Before the February primary election, Holtz and John Humphries, who lost the primary, had shared documents with each other proposing that whoever lost would hire the other to work in DPI. They also proposed the winner for superintendent should be able to take “complete authority over Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Madison,” as Holtz wrote, with authority to “Change boards when I deem necessary” and “Break apart districts.”

Says Evers of this unseemly communication: “When you’re going to cut a deal to eliminate five school districts, it’s an integrity issue,” Evers says. “That is not the way things are done in this state.”

Holtz has a history of controversies during his years as an educator, as Scott Bauer of the Associated Press has reported: Records from the school districts where he worked “show Holtz repeatedly clashed with the (school) boards by allowing a film crew for then-candidate Barack Obama to get footage of students in Beloit, hiring his wife to work at Beloit,” donating Whitnall football field bleachers that were being replaced to a private school his children attended, “and not communicating quickly enough about a Whitnall employee who used a computer to facilitate a sex crime. Before he was a superintendent, Holtz was fired from his job as an elementary school principal in the Cambridge district in 1995 after working there six years, but he disputes the reasons why.”

And Holtz’s stand on the Common Core standards? As an administrator at Whitnall, he embraced them, saying “The change is absolutely in the best interests of the kids of Wisconsin. Raising the bar will make our kids more competitive not only at the state level but at the national level.” He called it a “fun, exciting time to be involved in education.”

Now Holtz calls the Common Core a set of standards “created in Washington” that should be replaced with state-created standards.

But Evers, too, has modified his views over the years. Back in the 1990s, as an administrator of CESA 6 in Oshkosh, a regional organization that provides services for schools, Evers discouraged his employees from unionizing. And back in 2000, in the early days of vouchers, he favored it as a limited experiment in Milwaukee.

Nowadays he opposes vouchers and stands up for teacher unions. Both candidates, it seems, have been pushed further from the center as Wisconsin becomes ever more politically polarized.


The job:

The state superintendent heads the Department of Public Instruction, which supervises and supports K–12 education policies throughout the 424 local school districts (approximately one million students each year). The agency also advances public education and libraries in Wisconsin. The superintendent’s position is a nonpartisan, constitutional officer elected every four years. The currently salary is around $120,000 a year—considerably less than the salary of many local district administrators around Wisconsin.