Gov. Walker Tacks for the Middle, Particularly on Education Issues

Some politicians say they don’t pay attention to what polls show. Gov. Scott Walker is one of them. Most of those who say that actually do pay attention to polls. I assume Walker is one of them.

That’s certainly as good a way as I can think of to explain what is clearly an effort by Walker to move toward the middle on at least some issues, particularly education quality matters. In just over a half year in office, Walker has become an especially polarizing figure. Many on the right think he has changed the long-term future of Wisconsin for the better and praise him enthusiastically. Many on the left think he is so bad that they will succeed in bringing him to a re-call election next year. Some polls show that there are stronger feelings about Walker, both pro and con, with little middle ground, than is true for any other governor currently.  

But, ultimately, in a state that is as politically split as Wisconsin, it is valuable, if not essential, to have support among many of those in the middle. And Walker’s overall poll numbers are down in the light of the ferocious battle over the state budget.

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when Walker took more moderate positions in an interview I did with him on July 1 on education issues. He referred several times to his desire to build consensus on some major issues and said it was “the Wisconsin way” to get a wide range of people together to work on issues. He talked about how he was building a strong relationship with Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, on matters such as a new school accountability system, new state tests, and an initiative aimed at increasing the overall quality of the work of principals and teachers. The generally-liberal Evers has been backed by teachers unions and was strongly critical of some major parts of the budget proposals from Walker, a conservative Republican.

Walker’s comments and subsequent conversations with him and Evers led to a story I wrote for the July 10 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a column I did on Walker’s education thoughts on July 17. The audio of my interview with Walker is availabkle on the latter Web page. 

Walker has also sent some other signals he is tacking toward the middle just ahead of recall elections for nine state senators. Those signals include dropping his support of repealing the state ban on smoking in public places and dropping efforts to keep Wisconsin from receiving federal funds for some health programs.

Is this more-moderate Walker here to stay? Will more middle-of-the-road stands help his polling numbers? My guess is that feelings on Walker are so strong in both directions that it will be hard to shake them. But I admit I’m glad to see Walker and Evers cooperating on some important education steps.

Several other items in the educational policy arena:

On the local front, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association is asking its members to vote on what they think the union should do in response to a request from the Milwaukee Public Schools board and Superintendent Gregory Thornton that members pay 5.8% of their salaries toward their pensions in the two years remaining on the MPS labor contract. Management says it will recall about 200 teachers who have been laid off if teachers agree to the step. Including those 200 teachers, MPS is shedding almost 1,000 positions this fall.

Publicly, the union’s leaders have resisted making concessions, but the subject apparently has been the subject of a lot of discussion behind the scenes. The request to teachers to state their views by responding to a mailed questionnaire is a rare step by union leaders.

Thornton waded into the vote with an appeal posted on his blog Monday for teachers to support the concessions.  He wrote, “I make my personal pledge that the dollars the district would earn back from such concessions would be immediately used to bring back teachers we had to lay off in late June.  Every cent we get back will be used to bring back teachers. These are teachers who may have been in the classroom next door to yours.  They are teachers with whom you have shared break time, and whose children’s names you may know.  There are families on the line here.”

In national news, two development worth mentioning:

The Washington Post reports that District of Columbia school leaders have fired 206 teachers who got poor ratings on the groundbreaking evaluation system that was brought in while the controversial Michelle Rhee was chancellor of the system. Even with Rhee gone, her successor, Kaya Henderson, is continuing the system, known as IMPACT. And Mayor Vincent Gray has supported the step.

And New York City school officials are giving up on a system implemented there several years ago that gave the staffs of schools incentive bonuses if the schools met goals for improved student achievement. The system was intended to avoid the problem of giving some teachers bonuses but not others and it aimed to create a sense of staff unity in pursuing broader success. The program had come to be considered a failure.

Teacher evaluation systems, the idea of firing low performing teachers, and incentive or performance pay for teachers are all on the agenda in Wisconsin now. But effective ways of succeeding at all three remain hard to find.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Martin Tanz

    Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Scott Walker is belatedly realizing that the skills that served him so well in his rise to power might not be so good for reigning, or ruling over his kingdom.

    Scott Walker made himself a national lightning rod in the first few months of his governorship by going after the unions aggressively. This set off the now famous stalemate at the Capitol. IMO, this image has burned itself into the consciousness of the electorate.

    I don’t believe that any recent overtures to education moderates or liberals will change that impression of Walker as a polarizing figure. He doesn’t have the policy chops for it, and it doesn’t really suit his personality.

    And, the recall calendar is working against the new “Scott.” As the recall effort moves past Senate races and focuses on Walker, he will need to tack to the right again this fall and winter in order to fire up the right wing base that swept him into office. Basically, his only path to surviving the recall is to remain a polarizing figure.

  2. Tom Kamenick

    I don’t see that this is necessarily a “move” of any kind for Walker. If his goal has been to improve education in Wisconsin, the logical next step after wresting control of education from the teachers union would be to work with the constitutional officer in charge of statewide education.

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