Gov. Tony Evers alongside Wisconsin AFT President Kim Kohlhaas at the American Federation of Teachers event on Wednesday. (Screenshot from AFT Facebook Livestream)
The leader of the nation’s second largest teachers’ union stressed on Wednesday the urgent need to increase public school funding and to vote in the Nov. 8 election at a rally in Green Bay for Gov. Tony Evers in his reelection campaign against Republican businessman Tim Michels.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called Evers’ support for increasing funding public schools essential for upholding public education as a place of American possibility.
“You look at the two candidates: One [Michels] wants to cut public school funding by 40% — more, by the way, than the decimation that Scott Walker did to public school funding — and the other [Evers] wants to make sure that every single child has the wherewithal to thrive,” Weingarten said in an interview.
Education — with debates over funding for public schools versus school voucher programs and over culture war issues like critical race theory and gender expression in school grabbing particular attention — is a key issue in Wisconsin’s 2022 elections.
Weingarten said there are many significant issues this year, including democracy, the economy and health care, but the focus on education has been increased by extreme proposals.
“Extremists thought that they could defund public schools, that they could ban books, and try to pit parents and teachers against each other… and what we’re seeing around the country is that that might be a base strategy for extremists, but it’s not where the country is,” Weingarten said. “And it’s not where Wisconsin is. Wisconsin wants schools that are well funded, Wisconsin wants schools that prepare kids for their future.”
The AFT is touring several states as a part of the union’s “Get-Out-the-Vote” Election bus tour in an effort to motivate people to vote and to rally support for public education at the polls in November.
Evers, a former Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction and public school teacher, has made education a major pillar of his reelection bid. In September, he unveiled a proposal to boost education funding by nearly $2 billion — a goal that could be achieved without raising taxes due to Wisconsin’s estimated $4 billion budget surplus.
The proposed plan includes spending an additional $240 million on mental health services, $750 million on special education during the biennium and $10 million each year on literacy programming.
The plan would mark a significant investment in education, but is expected to face stiff opposition from the Republican-led Legislature, where leaders have already publicly dismissed his proposals.
“My next budget is going to be coming up after I win this election and I made a commitment to the state superintendent, Jill Underly, that this will be the best K through 12 budget ever,” Evers said at Wednesday’s rally.
Evers’ plan would expand on his previous actions while in office.
Evers said school funding has improved compared to when former Gov. Scott Walker — who implemented significant cuts to school funding early during his tenure — was in office. He attributed improvements in part to the federal COVID relief funds he has allocated to schools.
“During the pandemic, we were able to provide federal money, even Trump money, to our higher education institutions and our K-12 institutions in a way that really made a difference in kids’ lives and students’ lives,” he said.
In August, Evers announced he would direct an additional $90 million in federal money to Wisconsin K-12 schools to help with staffing and mental health services. This adds to the $2.4 billion Wisconsin schools have already received in direct federal funding as part of pandemic relief legislation.
Despite improvements, Evers said there is still a lot to do.
Michels said at an appearance at the Milwaukee Rotary Club on Tuesday that the budget surplus is a sign of overtaxing and that he’ll plan to enact major tax reforms rather than direct more funds to public schools.
Michels’ proposed education plan instead includes expanding Wisconsin’s school voucher program, which he said will empower parents and create competition among schools.
“Parents are gonna be able to take those tuition dollars with them to the school of their choice,” Michels said during his Rotary talk. “Tuition dollars will go with their sons and daughters. This will create competition in the education marketplace, and competition is a great motivator.”
Weingarten said Michels’ plan would take away money from schools that are accountable to taxpayers and give it to those that aren’t.
“Parents have a right to send their kids to private schools. Parents have a right to send their kids to religious schools,” Weingarten said. “But what he’s planning is to take money away from the schools that parents are sending their kids to right now, he’s trying to divert resources, he’s trying to defund schools. So what would [public] schools be left with?”
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