State School Superintendent Candidates Differ Sharply in Law School Debate

There are many clear divisions between the two candidates for Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction when it comes to how each would do the job over the next four years – and a good selection of those differences were visible Tuesday when the two debated at Marquette Law School.

Two-term incumbent Tony Evers and challenger Lowell Holtz, former superintendent of Beloit and Whitnall, will face off in the statewide election on April 4.

The Law School session, a week before election day, brought some heat – the two had sharp words, particularly over an exchange between candidates Lowell Holtz and John Humphries, a third candidate who lost in a February primary. In December, Humphries and Holtz met at a restaurant.  It remains murky who said what, but notes from that conversation say they talked about one of them working for the other, should the other win. The “loser” would get a high paying job that would include broad power of several of the state’s largest school districts.  In Tuesday’s debate, Evers said the exchange brought Holtz’s integrity into question. Holtz said Evers’ version was false, but did not clarify what went on between Humphries and him.

But there was light as well as heat at Tuesday’s one-hour debate. The race has been regarded by some as a referendum on the use of publicly-funded vouchers to allow students to attend private schools, including religious schools. Indeed, they do differ sharply on this, with Evers generally a critic of vouchers and Holtz a supporter.

But they differ on much more.

For example, money – Evers said a key part of his job is fighting for money for schools so kids have adequate resources. Holtz said research shows there is little correlation between how much money is spent by schools and student outcomes.

And the state budget – Evers said he would fight for Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to increase spending per student in all education sectors statewide by about $200 in each of the next two years. Holtz did not make a clear commitment on that. “It’ll be interesting to see how it comes out of joint finance,” he said, referring to the legislature’s budget writing committee.

And the root of low achievement levels overall in Milwaukee. Holtz said the problems is not kids, parents, teachers, or principals, but “the system” which is holding back innovation and not supporting high expectations and high behavior standards. Evers said he wasn’t excusing what educators can do, but the impact of “abject poverty” on children’s lives is a major factor.

And the changes coming with the new administration of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Holtz said the new approach in Washington was creating “an excellent opportunity to get rid of some of the federal overreach into state rights. For example, the common core,” the set of learning expectations most states have adopted. Evers said Trump’s proposed cuts to professional training funds for teachers, after-school programs for kids, and other services alarmed him. “This is the first public policy position this president has taken on education and he’s wiping us out,” Evers said.

(I expect to write more about this in my education column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this weekend. )

I am not the one who should go far in praising the debate – I was the moderator, for one thing. But I would say if you were there, you saw a clear set of differences between the two candidates over how and where they would lead the state Department of Public Instruction in the next four years. Whatever your views, you found motivation there to vote next Tuesday in what is pretty certain to be a low turnout (maybe 20 percent) election.

And if you weren’t there, you can watch it by clicking here.

Or you catch the news media coverage, including the Journal Sentinel, WUWM public radio, Channel 4, Channel 6, and Channel 58.

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