Tony Evers, Inaugurated as Wisconsin Governor, Faces a Divided State But Has Backing from Strong Public Education Network

In his fine book on the political ramifications of the 2010 Red-wave state elections, The One Percent Solution, Gordon Lafer describes state politics marked by big money and the impact of the Tea Party: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign.  Critically, this new territory included a string of states, running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds…. In addition, this was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country… Wisconsin’s was the most notorious legislation adopted during this period… Wisconsin’s ‘Budget Repair Bill’ (Act 10) largely eliminated collective bargaining rights for the state’s 175,000 public employees…  (Act 10) marked a singular triumph for the ALEC network.  Not only did the bill embrace principles laid out in ALEC model legislation, but its passage was made possible by an extensive corporate investment in local politics. (Governor Scott) Walker himself is an alumnus of ALEC, and from 2008 to 2012 he received over $400,000 in campaign contributions from ALEC-member companies. In addition, forty-nine members of the 2011 Wisconsin legislature were ALEC members….” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-49)

Yesterday, January 7, 2019, Tony Evers, a Democrat, was inaugurated to replace Walker as Wisconsin’s  governor, but both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature remain Republican—and ALEC-dominated.

Some are encouraged by the new governor’s cabinet picks.  On Sunday, reporters for the Wisconsin State Journal called Evers’ cabinet picks pragmatic: “Gov.-elect Tony Evers’ Cabinet roster points to a pragmatic approach aimed more at building consensus and managing agencies than fighting ideological battles or transforming how agencies operate, according to both Republican and Democratic observers.” Most cabinet appointments must be approved by the state senate, so we’ll wait to see whether Evers’ choices are acceptable to a highly ideological legislature.

Before his election as Governor, Evers was Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction; as a new governor he is permitted by Wisconsin law to choose his own replacement without required senate confirmation.  He has announced he will appoint Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who has been serving since 2001 as an assistant state superintendent. Public school supporters are encouraged by his choice.  Stanford Taylor was formerly a school principal at two elementary schools and a middle school in Madison, where at one time she was president of the local teachers union. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that when Evers named Stanford Taylor, he presented her as “a thoughtful leader… She is known and respected throughout the education community for her commitment to equity and her work to help all students reach academic success.” The Wisconsin State Journal’s report also quotes the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, “who praised the pick. ‘I think she’ll do a great job as superintendent.'”

As he left office, Scott Walker signed lame duck bills designed to curtail Evers’ power after he is in office. Many have predicted infighting and gridlock. But so far Evers has been upbeat and proactive. As the departing, lame-duck legislature debated bills to curb his power, Evers and his staff in the state superintendent’s office traveled across the state for a series of People’s Budget Listening Sessions to focus citizens on what must be his first priority in office—the next state budget. The press blurb Evers released after the first listening session, which attracted 230 people, begins this way: “Green Bay — Governor-elect Tony Evers, Lt. Governor-elect Mandela Barnes, and transition policy staff heard from Fox Valley residents who attended the first “Building the People’s Budget” event at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  Governor-elect Evers and his team are focused on building a budget that reflects the values and priorities of the residents of Wisconsin…. Transportation, public education, healthcare, and jobs were among the highest priority issues for attendees in Green Bay.”

Evers has already announced one budget priority. Wisconsin Public Radio reports: “Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers… wants Wisconsin property tax bills to show how much people are paying to support private voucher schools. The plan is one of many Evers will introduce as part of his first state budget, which will be the first proposed by a democratic governor in Wisconsin in eight years… ‘At some point in time as a state, we have to figure out whether we can afford two or three separate allocations of public schools,’ Evers said in an interview Wednesday. ‘People in Wisconsin don’t know how much school districts are losing because of vouchers and how much is being deducted from their aid. They need to know that so that we can as a state have a good discussion about what’s involved with the voucher program.'”

One thing Tony Evers can count on—even in his divided state where gridlock is anticipated: support from a tightly organized statewide network of public education advocates. The Wisconsin Public Education Network and its executive director Heather DuBois Bournane regularly update hundreds of public school activists and even encourage a network of volunteers to submit columns to their local newspapers.

In a recent column published in the Appleton Post Crescent, Jane Parish Yang, James Bowman, and Nancy Jones explain the importance of helping citizens understand Evers’ priority issue—the financial loss experienced by public school districts as money is redirected to Wisconsin’s statewide private school tuition voucher program: “The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, the statewide voucher program is one of three privatization programs in Wisconsin…  The WPCP was added to the budget in 2013 with no public hearings…  As more people seek the voucher payment, costs have increased statewide—from $3.2 million in 2013 to an estimated $54.6 million in 2018-19 for a total of $139.5 million during that time period… A close look at the ‘choice’ program reveals that most parents in the WPCP do not exercise choice. They simply seek a payment from the state for their child’s private school tuition. Of the students currently receiving a voucher, 77 percent attended private school last year.  Only a minority transferred from a public school. Consider the effect of the WPCP on the residents of one community, the Fox Cities. For the current year, 552 vouchers were issued to residents of the community’s six school districts… The cost is substantial: six years of vouchers in the Fox Cities have cost local taxpayers $13,379,651.”

The damage to Wisconsin public education during Scott Walker’s tenure has been devastating.  It will be fascinating to watch Evers, who knows education from his years as state superintendent, try to leverage the power of the governor’s office behind improving public schools—with the backing of the massive and organized Wisconsin Public Education Network.

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