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School concerns spur passions in Wisconsin governor’s race

In Wisconsin's race for governor, 40 percent of voters say education is their first or second most important concern. The Republican incumbent, Gov. Scott Walker, is squaring off against the state’s longtime superintendent of schools, Tony Evers. Polls indicate the race is too close to call. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, how education is emerging as a flash point in the midterm elections.

    The issue is front and center in the Wisconsin governor's race. The Republican incumbent, Scott Walker, is squaring off against the state's longtime superintendent of schools. Polls indicate the races is too close to call.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week went to Wisconsin for our weekly segment Making the Grade.

  • Lisa Stark:

    It's a raucous welcome on the first day of school at Maple Tree Elementary in Milwaukee. Students cheered on by city and district officials, and Tony Evers, Wisconsin's school chief and the Democratic candidate for governor.

    Twenty miles away, in the city of Waukesha, the current governor, Republican Scott Walker, is opening the school year at La Casa de Esperanza, a charter school. Walker, running for his third term, is getting an award from La Casa for expanding school choice.

    Education is a key issue in this race. Forty percent of voters say it's their first or second most important concern, edged out only by the economy.

  • Heather Dubois Bourenane:

    This is our message of the year. I love my public school, and I vote.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Heather DuBois Bourenane heads the Wisconsin Public Education Network, a nonpartisan group that advocates for public schools.

  • Heather Dubois Bourenane:

    It's about making sure that whomever gets elected is held accountable to the highest possible standard of doing the right things for kids in schools.

  • Lisa Stark:

    But how best to do the right things for students is what's at stake in this election.

  • Jim Bender:

    You couldn't pick a starker difference.

  • Julie Underwood:

    Two entirely different perspectives.

  • Lisa Stark:

    On one side, Governor Walker, who, soon after taking office, slashed school spending to balance the state budget. And he faced tens of thousands of protesters after weakening unions, pushing legislation known as Act 10 that did away with most bargaining rights for teachers and many other public employees. The anger spilled over into a recall attempt, which Walker survived.

    Now Walker is campaigning as the education governor, after boosting state money for schools by $636 million in his most recent budget.

  • Question:

    Why are you the education governor?

  • Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis.:

    Again, because we have not only made the largest historic investment in state history, which is important, but because of Act 10, because of our reforms, those dollars are overwhelmingly going in the classroom, where they have a real impact on student success.

    On the other side, Evers, who has been the state's schools chief for nine years. He argues he's the real school champion, calling for a big bump in education spending, an extra $1.4 billion.

  • Tony Evers:

    Clearly, my lifelong journey has been all about public education and being a teacher and an administrator. And, frankly, I have fought for our schools, instead of bringing them down.

  • Lisa Stark:

    School funding has been a political flash point in more than half-a-dozen states this year, including West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, as teachers walked out to demand higher salaries and more money for schools.

    This passion still playing out in many of this year's election races.

    In Wisconsin, outside money is pouring into the race from conservative and liberal groups. Both candidates have taken to the airwaves.

  • Tony Evers:

    And I will never play politics with our kids or their schools.

  • Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis.:

    In Wisconsin, we're rethinking K-12 education.

  • Lisa Stark:

    One of the big dividing lines, school choice. Walker has expanded charters and, more significantly, voucher program, which let lower-income parents use state education dollars to help pay private school tuition, something Evers doesn't support, says Jim Bender With School Choice Wisconsin.

  • Jim Bender:

    I think Superintendent Evers would be fine and dandy having all the education reform models be gone and everything just turned back to the same old district school, that's it, no innovation.

  • Lisa Stark:

    But education Professor Julie Underwood calls Walker the private school governor and says traditional public schools are not benefiting from his policies.

  • Julie Underwood:

    In 2011, we took the largest budget cut we have ever had to public schools. And that's never really been restored.

    We have got schools who are barely staying open. They're worried about meeting children's needs. And to quote an old movie, they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.

  • Lisa Stark:

    In a recent poll, 61 percent of voters said it was more important to increase spending on public schools than to cut property taxes.

    What does that say to you?

  • Heather Dubois Bourenane:

    It says, fund our schools. People are begging for it. People are passing referenda, voting to raise taxes on themselves to keep their schools in business at record rates.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Governor Walker believes the property tax measures are passing for a different reason.

  • Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis.:

    And we have done such a good job at cutting property taxes, that's no longer a factor, as much as it once was.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Candidates are pointing fingers at each other over Wisconsin's achievement gap, perhaps the worst in the nation. Black students do not do as well academically as white students.

    Evers says he's proposed fixes. Walker hasn't funded them.

  • Tony Evers:

    We need to continue to work on that issue going forward in the state, and we will. But we have to have a properly funded system in order to make that happen. We can't take money away and expect people to have miracles happen in their classrooms.

  • Lisa Stark:

    But Mark Morgan, who heads the state Republican Party, blames Evers' leadership.

  • Mark Morgan:

    Evers has failed to act multiple times in fixing either failing schools or taking bad teachers out of the classrooms.

  • Lisa Stark:

    And that controversial Act 10 law, passed seven years ago, it's still creating waves. Walker supporters say districts free from union contracts can now reward top teachers.

    But opponents, who still gather at the Capitol every workday, argue teacher retirements and turnover are up, leaving less experience in the classroom. The race has gotten contentious. Walker accuses Evers of failing to fire a teacher who viewed pornography at school.

  • Narrator:

    Tony Evers should have revoked the teacher's license, but he didn't.

  • Woman:

    Have you seen these false attack ads?

  • Lisa Stark:

    Evers argues state law at the time didn't allow him to do so.

  • Woman:

    That's why Tony Evers worked with both parties to change the law.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Even as this battle heats up, educators are putting their efforts into getting students settled for the new school year, trying to tune out the political noise says La Casa school leader Maria Ayala.

  • Maria Ayala:

    We need to get away from all of the politics and really focus in on the children. What are their needs? What can we do for them and for their families?

  • Lisa Stark:

    A focus that will continue long after Election Day.

    For Education Week and the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Stark in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's great having that report from Wisconsin.

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