Tony Evers faces two challengers for Wisconsin’s top education post


Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers is seeking a third term as Wisconsin’s top education official, facing off against two challengers in what has become a quasi-partisan battle over the direction of education policy in the state.

Lowell Holtz and John Humphries, who like Evers are both longtime educators, are school choice advocates and Common Core opponents who say academic performance in many Wisconsin schools has declined during Evers’ tenure.

The three will square off in the Feb. 21 primary, with the top two finishers advancing to the April 4 general election for a chance to win the four-year term.

Evers says many students and schools are not where they need to be, but derided Holtz’s and Humphries’ proposed reforms as old-school ideas that were tried and failed, and recycled Republican legislative priorities.

Though the race is officially nonpartisan, supporters are lining up for the most part along party lines, with Democrats and public school teachers unions behind Evers, and Republicans and school choice advocates behind Humphries and Holtz.

Evers continues to dwarf them in fund-raising, picking up about $220,617 since January 2016. Humphries has raised $58,536, and Holtz is gaining on him, raising $19,000 in the last week for a total of $54,280.

Here’s a closer look at the candidates:

Holtz. He had worked as a parochial school teacher and police officer before taking his first principal’s post in 1989. A Milwaukee native who now lives in Palmyra in Jefferson County, he served as superintendent in the Beloit and Whitnall school districts before retiring last year. It is his second attempt at the statewide post.

Holtz said he decided to run because of what he sees as the failure of public schools, particularly in urban areas.

“We have schools in Milwaukee with zero percent of kids proficient and reading and math, and that’s breaking my heart to see that happen,” he said.

As superintendent, Holtz said he would emphasize school discipline and safety, academic performance, local control and empowering school teachers.

Holtz said he would work with lawmakers and the governor to immediately eliminate Common Core standards adopted by the state in 2010, leaving it to districts to set their own standards; and do away with or modify the latest state test, the Wisconsin Forward Exam, the third in three years.

Holtz said he would reduce the administrative and regulatory burden on teachers and dramatically streamline the amount of paperwork required to determine educator effectiveness. And he promised to boost academic performance by pulling in teams of stakeholders — school and district officials, parents, community leaders and so on — to develop a turnaround plan.

A school choice advocate, he said the amount of taxpayer dollars paid to them per student is inadequate, but he has not devised a proposal to address that.

Humphries. The Dodgeville School District administrator-turned-contractor has mounted the most aggressive campaign to date. In appearances across the state, Humphries has derided Evers’ priorities as failures and rolled out a host of reforms from revamping school and district report cards to the creation of a state board of education that would limit the powers of the elected superintendent.

“I’m running because I know Wisconsin can do better,” said Humphries, who bills himself as the only candidate with a bipartisan campaign committee, co-chaired by state Reps. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) and Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), both school choice advocates. “We spend more on schools than the average state, but we don’t have the outcomes I think many people in Wisconsin think we should.”

Humphries argues that the current state report cards paint a rosier picture than many schools deserve and says his revisions, which would show many more schools as failing, would more accurately reflect student performance.

RELATED: Humphries touts plan to improve low-performing schools

RELATED: State schools superintendent candidate targets report cards

Humphries would boost the per-pupil funding of voucher and charter schools so they are on par with public schools. And he announced a plan to allow failing low-income schools to be turned over to outside operators, resurrecting an idea that failed to gain traction during the 2015-’16 legislative session. The vast majority of those schools would be in Milwaukee Public Schools.

He has unveiled a plan to boost career and technical education using so-called education savings accounts, state dollars that would be set aside for each student to use on programs of their choice. He also supports expanding the state’s experience-based teacher licensing program for high-needs positions such as computer programmers.

Like Holtz, he would eliminate Common Core, but phase it out over two years, and modify the Forward Exam accordingly. He said ditching it entirely could cost the state millions.

Evers. State superintendent since 2009, he said one measure of his success — and a vindication of his priorities — can be seen in the 2017-’19 state budget unveiled by Republican Gov. Scott Walker last week.

Walker’s budget includes a number of items for which Evers has lobbied for years, including $649 million in new funding for education, special supports for rural schools and new money for mental health care.

“That’s huge,” said Evers. “If the governor’s office thought these were half-baked ideas they wouldn’t have seen the light of day.”

Evers has criticized some of Humphries’ proposals, including the creation of a state board of education, saying it would “add another layer of bureaucracy.”

Humphries’ new report card system, he said, would deem six of the state’s nationally recognized Blue Ribbon Schools as failing. “To assume that tightening the noose on accountability systems…is somehow going to magically turn kids’ lives around, that’s just baloney,” Evers said.

RELATED: Evers seeks boost in school funding

A longtime critic of voucher schools, Evers believes they siphon much-needed resources from public schools and have done little to boost student performance. But he now says that debate is moot and that he works to ensure all students have access to a quality education, regardless of their sector.

Evers, who oversaw the adoption of Common Core, said it has worked well and was supported by the majority of districts across the state. During his tenure, Evers said, schools have reduced suspensions and expulsions, doubled the number of high school students taking college credits, and raised expectations for students and schools.

He has acknowledged that Wisconsin has some of the highest achievement gaps in the nation, but said he is working with his state school chiefs across the country on a plan to address that over the next few years.