Governor's race between Evers, Michels almost a referendum on what Wisconsin wants to see in education

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and challenger Tim Michels
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and challenger Tim Michels

Make a sharp right turn. Or tread water.

For Wisconsin education, the Nov. 8 election will be pivotal, impacting the shape and course of education policy for years to come.

The two candidates for governor have significantly different visions for what should lie ahead for education. That, in itself, sets the stage for different paths. After all, the outcome of an election for governor often has made a big difference in the past. (Scott Walker defeating Tom Barrett, leading to the passage of Act 10, which disempowered teachers unions, in 2011, for example.)

In some past years, legislative elections also were important to watch. Not this year: There is approximately zero chance of Democrats gaining majorities in either the state Assembly or Senate.

That makes the outcome for governor pivotal.

And so, the election can be seen as almost a referendum on what Wisconsin wants in schooling: an education system that prioritizes public schools, or one that prioritizes parental choice and an increased role for private schools.

If Democratic incumbent Tony Evers wins, his most important role in education will be as the man of a thousand vetoes. He has played that role already in his first term as governor, blocking Republican ideas on a range of issues, just as Republicans who control the Legislature have blocked his ideas.

If Republican challenger Tim MIchels wins, the path is wide open for making Republican talking points into education realities. A lot could — and likely will — happen.

Take a brief tour of several of the decisions that lie ahead:

School choice. Wisconsin already has lots of school choice: four voucher programs (one each for Milwaukee, Racine, the rest of the state, and special education students). It has a substantial number of charter schools. And it has an open-enrollment law that allows students to attend public schools outside their own community.

Advocates want more; they want more families (some want everyone) to be able to qualify for vouchers. They want to see more private or charter options available statewide. And they want the payment per student for charter students and voucher students to be increased significantly.

This is an area where Evers has successfully blocked major change. And Michels has made school choice a prominent part of his campaign pitch.

Parental “bill of rights.” The battles continue nationwide over hot-button issues such as race, gender and library books. Much of it is going on at local levels. Conservatives want to give parents more say in what their kids are taught and other school policies. Evers vetoed bills dealing with these issues that were passed by Republican legislators. And in the next session?

Money. This will be interesting, whoever wins. Public school leaders and allies have been advocating vigorously for schools to get a lot more state aid. Wisconsin has kept a tight lid on public school revenue for more than a decade. Two years ago, there was no increase in the “revenue cap” for school operations, with Republicans saying it wasn’t needed because of federal pandemic aid. But that aid generally has to be spent by 2024 and has limited uses. Meanwhile, inflation and other factors have increased financial pressure on public schools.

Evers wants big increases in state aid to schools. Michels is generally opposed to increases in state spending for schools.

So what’s next? Is there any chance of a major increase in state aid to schools? Not much, I’d suggest, either due to Republican opposition or gridlock due to split control of state government.

If school choice options expand, what will that do to the enrollment and financial picture for public schools? A question that might take on increasing weight: Can Wisconsin afford to support what are, in effect, two school systems, one a shrinking public sector and one a growing private sector?

Doing something about MPS. Republicans approved a bill last spring to break up Milwaukee Public Schools into four to eight districts. There wasn’t much need to take the idea seriously because it was certain that Evers would veto the bill. Michels has said he wants dramatic change in MPS, but has not been specific. So what will happen if he wins? Everything from no real action to the end of MPS as we know it seems possible.

Speaking of MPS, the state Department of Public Instruction on Sept. 29 released results from the standardized tests given last spring statewide to both public school students and private school students using vouchers. Statewide, it was clear that the pandemic set back overall student success, with some glimmers that recovery was underway.

But the results for MPS were terrible. They were bad before the pandemic, and they’re worse now. The percentages of students proficient in reading and math were in single digits in many schools. What can be done about that? Would the plans either candidate is advocating bring real change in how thousands of Milwaukee students are doing?

On other education fronts, do either of the candidates have plans for what to do about bringing people into teaching jobs statewide? Or for keeping teachers on the job, especially if they work in high-needs schools? Not that they’re promoting.

More: On the opening day of school, Republicans deride Evers' pitch for more education funds as a 'feeble ploy'

More: Tony Evers, Tim Michels agree to a single debate ahead of the Wisconsin governor election. Here's how to watch

Other scenarios

Are there other possible scenarios for what’s ahead for education statewide?

Sure. Here are three:

One is that split government between Democrats and Republicans in Madison could lead to compromise and middle-of-the-road solutions. Let’s all work together, right? That hasn’t been the Wisconsin way in recent years, and partisan lines seem to be hardening. So it’s hardly likely.

A second is that Democrats' push for big increases in overall school funding and for state support of special education could gain traction. Frankly, this has almost no likelihood of happening, even if Evers wins. Republicans, who will continue to control the Legislature, have shown no sign of budging on Democratic ideas.

A third is that Republicans could increase their majorities in the Legislature to the point of being able to override Evers’ vetoes. Not likely, political observers say, but possible. If that happens, the Republican right turn might make big progress, even if Evers wins.

Likely paths

So overall, there are two likely paths: More of the same, which has meant incremental changes, at most, in recent years, and a new ballgame that would mean a lot of Republican-backed changes.

Stalemate in recent years has been good for each party, largely to keep the other from getting its way. But given the broad picture of student achievement, it’s hard to argue that stalemate has been helpful when it comes to improving the overall performance of Wisconsin students, especially those with the biggest needs.

Who has the best chance of helping — or at least, not harming — Wisconsin’s students overall? It’s me, both Michels and Evers say. The outcome of their race will let the winner show if he’s correct.

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at alan.borsuk@marquette.edu  

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Evers-Michels race for governor could shape Wisconsin education policy