Editorial: A decade after Walker’s assault, it is time to renew Wisconsin’s commitment to public education

by Cap Times editorial

When former Gov. Scott Walker attacked Wisconsin’s public school teachers and the unions that represented them in 2011, he was not merely carrying out the demands of the out-of-state billionaires who funded his campaigns. Walker was striking a blow against public education in a state that had historically recognized the role that great schools play in sustaining democracy, equity and prosperity.

A decade ago, as he began his tenure as the most destructive governor in Wisconsin’s history, Walker secured approval for a budget that cut funding for public education. That did long-term harm to urban and rural schools. But Walker was not done there. He sought to steer money away from public schools and toward the private projects of his political allies. He undermined and diminished efforts to provide equity for students of color and low-income students. And he disregarded clear commitments outlined in the state Constitution, which since 1848 has recognized the state’s responsibility to support and sustain public education.

The state Constitution’s lengthy section on public education began by vesting oversight of schools in an elected state superintendent of public instruction. Though the superintendent is chosen on a nonpartisan basis, and though the job had traditionally been held by veteran educators with deep roots in the state’s school districts, Walker went out of his way to attack the department and its popular superintendent, Tony Evers.

Evers stood strong — fighting Walker and his allies at the ballot box, in the courts and in the court of public opinion — to protect and preserve our schools. Eventually, Evers rallied the voters of the state to sweep Walker from office in the 2018 election that saw supporters of public education win every contest on the statewide office.

Today, Evers serves as a pro-public education governor, and voters across the state have been enthusiastically supporting local referendums that are going a long way toward renewing school systems — in Madison, Milwaukee, Racine and dozens of other communities. But the threat Walker created in 2011 has not ended. Walker’s still around, still attacking teachers and their unions, still promoting schemes to weaken public education. His allies still hold sway in the gerrymandered state Legislature. A Walker-like Republican will undoubtedly bid in 2022, as a billionaire-funded critic of great teachers and great schools, for the governor’s office.

That makes this year’s race to fill the open state superintendent of public instruction post all the more critical. After Evers was elected governor, Carolyn Stanford Taylor was appointed to complete his term. She’s been an able leader, especially when it comes to working with schools that have struggled to meet the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. If Stanford Taylor were running this year, we’d be inclined to support her. But she has chosen not to seek a full term.

There are a number of fine candidates bidding to succeed her in a race that voters will begin to sort out in the Feb. 16 primary election. From a seven-candidate field, voters will identify two contenders in the April 6 general election, for which we plan to make a formal endorsement.

In anticipation of the primary, we note that three candidates have been securing significant support from around the state: Pecatonica School District Superintendent Jill Underly; Sheila Briggs, who has served as an assistant state superintendent of public instruction under Evers and Stanford Taylor; and Shandowlyon (Shawn) Hendricks-Williams, who has served as assistant director of the Teacher Education, Professional Development and Licensing team at the Department of Public Instruction and as director of the Milwaukee Office of the Governor.

Underly, who has worked as a University of Wisconsin College of Letters & Science academic advisor, a Title I consultant and assistant manager at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, an elementary school principal and a rural school district superintendent, has gained particularly notable endorsements.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest union of educators, recommended the former middle school and highschool social studies teacher.

“Dr. Underly has committed to repairing or replacing the school funding formula so it is equitable to all students regardless of their ZIP code,” said WEAC president Ron Martin. Underly has also been endorsed by former state superintendents John Benson and Bert Grover, and by former Madison Teachers Inc. executive director John Matthews.

Underly, Briggs and Hendricks have each attracted notable levels of support from educators and school board members with whom they have worked over the years, which we see as a good measure of their candidacies.

Monona Grove School Board president Andrew McKinney said, “Dr. Hendricks will take our communities in the direction needed to make sure every child receives equal opportunities, fair and equal treatment.” She is, McKinney said, committed to “helping people embrace our cultures and be aware of the gift it truly is.”

Madison School Board member Ananda Mirilli backs Briggs, who she describes as “a compassionate leader unafraid of facing the challenges that Wisconsin is experiencing.” Briggs, Mirilli said, “has demonstrated how she can transform education centering in students, families and educators across the state.”

Former UW-Madison School of Education dean Julie Underwood, a nationally recognized advocate for public education, is supporting Underly.

“She’s a champion of our public schools and will never cave to the privatization lobby,” Underwood said. “Her experience as a teacher in the classroom, an advisor at UW, a former DPI employee, and now as a working superintendent on the frontlines of COVID-19, make Jill the best candidate to meet the unique challenges we face at this moment.”

We’re advocating for a high turnout on Feb. 16, with a reminder that voters can learn more about all the candidates on the League of Women Voters of Dane County website, at https://www.lwvdanecounty.org/superintendent-of-public-instruction.


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