Gov. Tony Evers signs the 2021-23 biennial budget at Cumberland Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, after making 50 partial vetoes (screenshot | Gov. Evers Facebook video)
At the annual Wisconsin Public Education Network Summer Summit, held this year in Eau Claire, Gov. Tony Evers praised assembled public school advocates Thursday, as well as state schools superintendent Jill Underly for fighting against school budget cuts and resisting rightwing culture-war ideas he called “radical.”
Evers accused Republican legislators of failing to adequately fund Wisconsin schools and of pushing divisive bills that aim to sow distrust and ill will in communities across the state.
Julie Underwood, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin and a member of the Legislature’s blue ribbon commission on school finance, introduced Evers, saying that the Legislature, in its last session, had done” little to nothing for public schools.”
Instead, the Republican majority “passed some horrible bills” including increased funding for private-school vouchers and banning discussion of systemic racism in the classroom. She praised Evers for vetoing those bills. “He has protected us from some horrible, horrible policies in education,” Underwood said, calling Evers’ record-setting 128 vetoes “better than a hat trick.”
“He is the best damn goalie Wisconsin’s ever had,” Underwood delcared.
Evers praised Superintendent Jill Underly for her recent comments on gun safety in schools, and for opposing the idea that teachers should be armed to combat active shooters in the classroom.
“Obviously, do we want to have schools that are pretty tight so that people can’t get in? Yes,” Evers said. “Do we need to make sure that we have good mental health services? Yes, we must do that. But how about let’s not arm our population? Let’s think about gun safety.”
While 80% of Wisconsinites support universal background checks and red flag laws, Republican legislative leaders refused to take up Evers’ call to hold a special session to discuss those ideas, he reminded the group. They also refused to take up his call for a special session on school funding
“Perhaps more now than ever, our kids in our schools need dedicated advocates like you,” Evers told the assembled teachers, parents and activists of the Wisconsin Public Education network.
“After a decade worth of cuts and disinvestments and attacks on education, together we’ve got to work doing what’s best for our kids,” he said. He pointed to the increase in Wisconsin schools’ ranking in measures of achievement during his tenure to eighth place in the nation in U.S. News and World Report rankings, from 18th place five years ago under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, when Evers was serving as state schools superintendent.
While he acknowledged Republicans’ rejection of his two biennial budget proposals that would have dramatically increased funding for schools, Evers pointed to the budget he signed which, symbolically at least, restored the state’s commitment to cover two-thirds of public school funding.” I know just as well as everyone in this room that the way we fund our schools matters,” he added. He explained that while Republicans were able to claim to restore two-thirds funding in the budget that passed the Legislature, they also refused to increase local revenue caps; that means much of that money can only be used to give local property tax payers a tax cut, not for school funding.
Still, acknowledging that the state ought to pick up two-thirds of the tab for public schools is important, Evers said: “For the first time in two decades, we actually got people to talk about two-thirds funding and really significant increases in special education and health services.”
And, he added, ”I was clear when I signed that budget, that it wasn’t good enough for our kids, which is why I made sure to allocate $110 million in federal funds for schools and another $15 million for mental health issues.”
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done,” Evers said. But the “bottom line,” he continued, “is that our kids and our schools would be a lot better off if we made the investments I have proposed in my two biannual budgets. They’d also be better off if the Republicans had made the investments that I propose as my time as state superintendent. And in fact, Republicans cut more than $4 billion of my education budgets over that last decade.”
Republicans in the Legislature argued during budget debate that local school districts should use federal pandemic relief funds to cover basic expenses unrelated to the pandemic, and that the infusion of federal money meant there was no reason to increase state funding for schools.
“We do have a surplus, folks. Just remember that,” Evers added, pointing to the projected $4.4 billion projected surplus in state revenue over the next three years.
After failing to adequately invest in public schools, “Republicans are trying to divide our schools and hurt our kids by bringing their radical efforts into the classroom,” Evers added. “It’s time for those radical politicians to stop using our kids as political pawns.”
“Teachers should have the freedom to teach accurate facts about historic events and topics without being censored by politicians,” he said. “We should be finding common sense solutions to keeping our kids, schools and communities safe, not making it easier or acceptable to have a loaded gun on school grounds. We should trust parents, schools and educators to work together to do what’s best for our kids — work that they’ve long been doing without the political interference and micromanagement by the radicals in the Legislature. And we should be working every day to make sure every kid feels safe, welcomed and included in school so that they can succeed both in and out of the classroom.”
Public school funds are better spent on classroom learning, Evers added, than on the lawsuits that have been proliferating over critical race theory and other hot-button issues.
On a final panel at the WPEN summit, Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign finance watchdog group, drew connections between campaign spending by groups hostile to public schools and attacks on democracy. The group American Federation for Children, founded by school privatization advocate and Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, spent $8.3 million dollars over the last 11 years “to make sure they have right wing control of our Legislature,” Rothschild said.
“We’re in a democracy crisis in this country and in this state,” he added.
Amber West of the student-led Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) in Milwaukee urged teachers, administrators and community members to “let our young people lead, making them the leaders of decision-making processes, giving them platforms to speak and to be heard out by their administration, by their school board members, by their chancellors at their colleges.”
Her group, she added, is focused on empowering students and “educating them on what’s happening around them, also empowering them to know that they can make changes, that their voices matter. And that young votes also matter and young people should have stake in elections.”
UW-Madison education professor emeritus Michael Apple urged public school activists and progressives to learn from the right. “They have summer camps for high school students and for young activists to learn how to manipulate the media,” he said. “They have summer camps as well so people know how to go into Mequon to change school board elections. In the city of Kenosha this past year, they spent $150,000 convincing many working-class and minoritized people to vote for people who are utterly racist, disrespect everything that we would do.”
Apple added that he is working with a media project that is attempting to get public school voices into newspapers, sending out syndicated opinion pieces pushing back against the rightwing narrative on schools.
It might annoy progressives to hear it, he added, but they need to learn from conservative activists “not to be cynical, but to understand they actually have succeeded because they take certain things very, very seriously … they are winning in all too many damn districts. Let us understand what they did.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.