Evers v. Pridemore for State Superintendent
Choice between public and private schools on April 2
The election of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, a nonpartisan constitutional officer, features the incumbent, Tony Evers, and his challenger, Republican state Rep. Don Pridemore of Erin.
The choice couldn’t be more stark. Evers, a lifelong educator turned policymaker at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), is a strong supporter of public schools, where the vast majority of the state’s students are educated. While Evers says he does support charter schools that are connected to public school districts, he has opposed efforts to fund private voucher schools with taxpayer dollars. Engineer-turned-legislator Pridemore, who has no teaching experience and has not served on a school board, says that competition from vouchers and charters will improve the public schools and give more local control to residents.
Evers was the deputy state superintendent before being elected state superintendent in 2009, when Gov. Jim Doyle was in office and Democrats controlled the state Legislature, providing more funding for the state’s public schools, smaller class sizes and science and technology education, as well as implementing transparency and accountability measures for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (i.e. the city’s voucher schools).
That all changed with the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-dominated Legislature, who stripped public employees of most of their bargaining rights, cut education funding by $1.6 billion and made vouchers available to middle-class families in Milwaukee and Racine.
As a result, more than 4,000 public school employees lost their jobs, class sizes increased and school districts struggled to make ends meet—and still do.
“It’s like we’ve been shot into Mars,” Evers said of the difference between the Doyle and Walker eras.
Walker’s current budget proposal adds a modest amount of funding for K-12 schools, but that money would not go into the classroom, and must be used for property tax relief. Walker has also proposed expanding vouchers to nine additional school districts and increasing the amount of the taxpayer-funded voucher, as well as setting up an unelected board made up of political appointees that could set up charter school districts in the communities that qualify for the voucher program, such as Milwaukee, Racine and Madison. Some Senate Republicans have said they aren’t willing to go along with Walker’s education plans, so a fight over vouchers and school funding is expected as the budget makes its way through the Legislature.
Evers said he’s running for re-election because he’s the best candidate to fight for classroom resources to provide an education for the 21st century.
“We need a steady hand at the wheel,” Evers said. “We don’t need amateur hour to take over leadership of our schools. We need somebody who knows what they’re doing, someone with 36 years of experience and someone who cares for public schools.”
He said he’d like to continue DPI initiatives currently underway, such as implementing the Common Core State Standards in English and math, part of a national effort to align school curriculum with college and workforce expectations.
DPI is also getting rid of the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE), the state’s old testing system.
“We’re going to have a system that will give teachers some data they can use,” Evers said. “Right now the test doesn’t really help teachers improve instruction. It’s just used as benchmarks. We need to get better information into teachers’ hands. That’s the bottom line.”
Evers said he’s been working closely with Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton on the district’s corrective action plan to reduce the achievement gap and improve overall performance.
“One of the things we’re proud of in Milwaukee—and it’s beginning to show results—is the new comprehensive literacy plan that really is going to move the district forward,” Evers said. “We’re working on the new math plan. It’s hard and slow work but we’re making progress.”
Evers has been a staunch opponent of taxpayer-funded voucher schools and scoffed at Pridemore’s contention that free market-style competition improves school performance.
“The achievement and performance of voucher schools has shown to be no different than what is going on in MPS,” Evers said. “We can’t say that this [the voucher program] is a best practice. It’s choice. I get that. But it’s not something that we can say ‘Yes, if this happens, student achievement is going to increase.’ There’s no data to support that.”
He said he anticipated national voucher supporters—such as the very conservative Walton and DeVos families—to get involved in this race, either by donating directly to Pridemore or by funding independent issue ads.
“I’m running this race as if I’m behind,” Evers said. “I believe he has access to resources I’ll never have. He’s a member of the tea party and he’s an advocate for vouchers. On a national level those people have a whole lot of money.”
To learn more about Tony Evers, go to tonyevers.com.
Engineer Don Pridemore has served in the state Assembly since 2004, where he currently chairs that chamber’s Urban Education Committee.
He said he’s running as a “conservative reformer” to restore local control to school districts.
“I’m running because our education system continues to erode,” Pridemore said. “For the past 40-plus years our education has been taken over by the teachers unions, both at the local and at the state level. They instituted programs and mandates to DPI and federal education all to take away local control. I believe local control is the best way we can achieve success in schools.”
Pridemore said he supports the voucher program because he believes that competition improves performance. He said he didn’t think additional funding for smaller classes or science and technology programs improved student test scores.
“That had very minimal effect,” Pridemore said. “And most of it was short-term. Most of those are government programs that were introduced because of failures of other government programs that preceded them.”
Pridemore said he supported Walker’s proposal to expand vouchers to nine additional school districts but he didn’t think voters in those communities needed to weigh in on the issue via a referendum.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with a referendum,” Pridemore said. “But I think the proof in the pudding is that the parents who feel that their school system is failing them should have a bigger voice in putting their kids in the voucher program than anyone else who does not have kids in the system. Looking from that perspective, I think a referendum would be unnecessary because you’re dealing with the entire community. And the entire community doesn’t have kids in the school system.”
He said he supported Walker’s proposal to create a statewide charter school board made up of unelected political appointees.
“To allow other entities to charter schools is a good thing,” Pridemore said. “You introduce competition and you don’t have a monopoly over issuing charters.”
He said he hoped that national voucher supporters would get involved in this race.
“This is a turning point, as I see it, in education in the state of Wisconsin,” Pridemore said. “So everybody is going to be cautious in sticking their neck out because they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. If I was in [voucher donors’] position I’d be very cautious as well.”
To learn more about Don Pridemore, go to pridemoreforwi.com.