74 Interview: Wisconsin Governor and Former State Schools Chief Tony Evers on Equitable School Funding, His GOP Foes & Hitting Pause on Private School Choice

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a rally in support of Wisconsin Democrats at North Division High School on October 26, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

See previous 74 interviews: Presidential candidate Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Co-CEO Priscilla Chan on supporting the “whole child,” then-Rep. and now–Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on school funding and special education. See the full archive here.

Every governor wants to be “the education governor,” but Tony Evers, elected last year to lead Wisconsin, has the credentials to back the title.

Evers, who bested longtime Democratic foe and two-term governor Scott Walker, started his career in the classroom and worked his way up the schools hierarchy, ultimately serving as state superintendent of public instruction. He was also well known in D.C. education policy circles, having served as president of the Council of Chief State School Officers during a key era in the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The mild-mannered governor recently released his first budget request and, in keeping with both national Democratic Party priorities and his own background, included a big increase for education funding. Evers wants to raise spending on schools by $1.4 billion over two years. Much of the spending would go to special education and to students from low-income families.

It’s a plan Evers proposed as state superintendent, and one he sees as an issue of equity.

“It’s a pretty simple theory of action: If a student is in need of an extra lift, and if that extra lift costs more money, we need to pay for it,” he told The 74.

Little progress has been made on the budget overall, as Evers’s education proposal heads to a key committee Thursday, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Republicans have said they’ll likely raise education funding, but not by as much as Evers has requested.

The GOP also rejected another ed policy change, removing from the budget a pause on some of the state’s private school choice programs. Evers wants to freeze enrollment in voucher programs in Milwaukee and Racine, and on a separate program for students with disabilities, beginning in 2021. He also proposes including the amount spent on voucher programs on property tax bills.

Evers frames it as taking a pause to study the costs and results of the long-running program, which he said isn’t showing results.

When you have a program that’s costing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s questionable whether it’s meeting its original goals, “then it’s time to stop and take a look,” he said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Your budget seeks an additional $1.4 billion in education spending, primarily targeted toward low-income students and special education. Why did you prioritize those areas?

Evers: Our education budget is all based on issues of equity … It’s a pretty simple theory of action: If a student is in need of an extra lift, and if that extra lift costs more money, we need to pay for it.

Our budget would redesign how money is allocated. Of course, we’re asking for more money, but [we also want to change] how it’s allocated, based on some issues that I think have been proven to be a problem across the country.

If a district has more poor kids than its neighbors, and it has the exact same enrollment, it would get more money, because those kids need that extra lift. In addition, we’re prioritizing making sure that special education funding is at a level that it should be. We’ve ignored that population in the state for the last 12 years. We’re focusing on issues that are important to making sure we close gaps, to making sure that [funding is] equitable.

Another small example — it’s not something that’s really flashy, and we get a lot of headlines around it — but we’re asking for a significant increase in afterschool programming for our kids in urban areas. …

Having investments in areas that can address the equity issue but also close achievement gaps — that’s critically important.

Why are you seeking to phase out some of Wisconsin’s school choice programs?

What we’re doing is essentially halting it, the growth of it, for the biennium. Our goal here is to take a deep breath. We’ve been at this, especially in the voucher world, for 25 years. We need to figure out how we’re going to pay for it. It’s become a very expensive program. Right now, local property-tax payers are bearing a much larger portion of that funding.

My goal is to take a deep breath, take a couple years to analyze whether we’re going to continue it or not, [and] if we’re going to continue it, how we’re going to pay for it. We have a lot of districts that frankly are struggling, and they frankly are concerned about the fact that they’re not only paying for their kids’ public schools, but they’re paying for other children’s, in the same district, private school education, and that doesn’t sit well. We’re looking to take a pause on that for a couple years and analyze that much more closely.

Do you have concerns with the choice programs beyond cost?

The cost is important because when we started down this road, especially with vouchers, [the idea] was that somehow it would lift all boats. That just hasn’t happened. The data we’ve had for 20-some years pretty much shows that there’s not an appreciable — or any — difference in academic achievement of kids that get a voucher and those that go to regular public schools. If it is truly about that, then I say it’s a program that hasn’t lived up to its original intent. So we need to take a look at the data again, making sure that we’re continuing to understand it correctly. When you have a program that’s costing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, and the original intent, it’s questionable whether it’s been met, then it’s time to stop and take a look.

You also campaigned on overturning Act 10, the 2011 law that limited collective bargaining rights for public employees, including teachers. Where are you on that?

Act 10 clearly has made a significant dent in the morale of our teachers, and that continues to concern me. We have trouble enough getting people to engage in the profession without worrying about whether they’re going to be treated fairly or whether they’re going to have a voice.

We did not include any Act 10 changes in our budget. Our goal is, first of all, to encourage school districts to make sure that teachers and others that work in the district have a voice. To some extent, our school districts are responding to that well. But second of all, we are making sure that they have the resources, and that’s what this budget is about, is additional resources for school districts. Hopefully some of the additional resources will help compensate teachers better.

Republicans, who control the legislature, have already been publicly skeptical of these ideas, particularly the budget. How do you plan to get their support?

In the big picture that relates to funding, especially equitable funding, we have in the state over the last several, I’d say 10 years, or eight years for sure, had local referendums [raising property taxes to fund schools] being passed at historic numbers … The idea that somehow we’re saving money at the state level by not funding our schools adequately — they’re just turning around and taking it to their local taxpayers. It’s like a hidden tax. Not even a hidden tax. It’s a tax, period.

In our state, it’s no different than other states. We have a constitutional responsibility around funding our schools … I believe that the Republicans understand that it’s important to fund schools adequately. I’m not concerned about convincing them of that, it’s just the level of funding.

In addition, most of the schools that are struggling in the state of Wisconsin are rural school districts that are represented by the party that I’m not part of. People understand that it’s necessary, in small towns, to have their schools be thriving, because in many cases the schools are the largest employers and the biggest impact on the quality of life in those districts. So I think at the end of the day we’ll have to reach common ground. I feel pretty confident that Republicans want good schools as much as Democrats do.

To take you back to your old role as state chief, how is ESSA implementation going?

… I can tell you that from my vantage point as superintendent here in Wisconsin, we took the opportunity, and I think all states did, to make sure that there was great buy-in by local folks and making sure that there’s not just buy-in locally at the state level, but at the local level too. We made sure in Wisconsin that if a school needed extra resources or was going to be deemed as not performing at the level we’d like, then they would have an obligation to make sure they reached out to people who had been marginalized in the past and make sure that they’re part of the solution.

Overall, I think ESSA is working out as well as can be expected, and we’re hopeful that the federal government continues to fund it at a reasonable level.

Beyond what you included in the budget, what are your longer-term policy goals?

It’s clear, as governor, and frankly it was clear to me as state superintendent, that not only the impact of not having enough affordable housing, the impact of inadequate health care, the impact of mass transportation issues … and, frankly, our correctional institutions and how we deal with the issue of criminal justice reform, all those things impact kids’ lives in a really significant way.

What I try to do in our budget is focus on ways we can connect the dots so we do have a better society. By doing that, we need to continue to make sure that there’s all those other pieces in place and help people understand how they’re interconnected. It’s not that school people should be taking a pass on closing achievement gaps, but at the end of the day, housing policy and transportation policy and criminal justice system policy, all impact on how those little kids are learning. It’s my goal as governor to connect the dots for people.

Go Deeper — See previous 74 interviews: Presidential candidate Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Co-CEO Priscilla Chan on supporting the “whole child,” then-Rep. and now–Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on school funding and special education. Scroll through the full archive here.

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