Yesterday, State Superintendent Tony Evers won the Democratic Primary for governor. While Evers may come off much like a friendly grandfather—affable and harmless—it is important to recognize that he represents a threat to school choice in Wisconsin, even more so than previous Democrat gubernatorial candidates. Evers has a long record of opposing education reform that needs to be highlighted.
His stance on school choice may kick thousands of low-income Milwaukee students out of their schools
Evers has threatened to end Wisconsin’s school choice programs unless a number of untenable reforms are implemented. Without such changes, enrollment in the programs would be frozen. Voucher schools, particularly in Milwaukee, are reliant on a continual stream of students to remain viable. Freezing enrollment would effectively mean these schools would shut down and more than 27,000 low-income families in Milwaukee would be left with no option but to return to the low-performing Milwaukee Public Schools.
Ignoring the Research
On numerous occasions, Evers has voiced skepticism about the academic benefits of Milwaukee’s school choice programs. In 2011, he called it “morally wrong” to spend money on a “20 year old program that has not improved overall student achievement.” More recently, he derisively called my own research that carefully controls for a number of factors that effect student achievement, “Apples to Giraffes.” Of course, Evers rhetoric flies in the face of numerous academic studies that have found higher academic outcomes for students in choice schools as well as higher rates of graduation and college attendance. Evers appears to ignore this research because it is inconsistent with his narrative of opposition to school choice.
Promoting Allegations of Discrimination
Among the caveats that Evers suggests would be required to allow the MPCP to continue if he is elected is a requirement that private choice schools adopt non-discrimination rules. This calls back to a long-standing investigation conducted by the Obama Administration into allegations that MPCP schools discriminated against students with disabilities. It was reported Evers may have worked behind the scenes to encourage discrimination lawsuits against private schools. While the long, expensive investigation by the Obama Administration turned up no evidence of discrimination, Evers’ proposal continues to promote the myth.
Claiming that Vouchers Drain Resources from Public Schools
During the last budget cycle, Evers wrote a letter to Walker asking him to veto a number of reform-minded measures, including the expansion of income limits for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program to 220 percent of the federal poverty limit. His justification: “The state cannot afford two school systems: one for pupils in public schools, for whom the state has a constitutional obligation to educate, and one for pupils in private schools, for which the state does not have that same obligation.”
Here, Evers makes the case that public schools should not be subject to the same sort of market forces that apply in virtually every other sector of American life. If parents decide that an alternative educational option is better for their student, why should the public school be rewarded by continuing to receive resources for that student? This lack of understanding of how markets work might be concerning even beyond the bounds of education policy.
It can be said quite reasonably that Evers is the most unfriendly candidate for school choice that has been nominated for governor in the state of Wisconsin. School choice advocates must be vigilant in exposing his feelings on this issue that are out of step with mainstream Wisconsinites, and even with many members of his own party. Wisconsin can ill afford to force its most at-risk kids back into a school system that has been failing kids for generations, or to stem the growth of a statewide program that is providing families throughout the state options for the first time.
Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent the official position of WILL.