It's hard to find common ground between the candidates running for state superintendent. Incumbent Tony Evers and Rep. Don Pridemore (R-Hartford) both say they're dedicated to improving education for kids in Wisconsin, but the similarities end there, giving voters a stark choice on April 2.
Pridemore, whose campaign asked for a list of questions before scheduling an interview, has served on the Assembly's education committee for the past eight years. Although he admits he never attended public schools himself, he says he is alarmed over what he believes is a union takeover of public education that started nearly a half century ago. That belief is what motivated him to run for superintendent.
"Unions in general have controlled DPI superintendent's job and other school board races for the last 46 years," Pridemore says. "The policies and directions that DPI [the state Department of Public Instruction] has taken since the teachers associations were allowed to begin unions have harmed their ability to teach critical thinking and prepare kids for employment."
Given his opposition to teachers unions, it is not surprising that Pridemore enthusiastically supported Act 10, which included Gov. Scott Walker's plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for most state employees. Pridemore also voted for the largest funding cut to public education in state history - more than $800 million - under Walker's 2011 budget. But Pridemore insists Act 10's "modest cuts" to teacher take-home pay "gave school districts the tools to more than make up the difference" for the budget cuts.
Evers, who was first elected state superintendent of public instruction in April 2009, strongly disagrees, calling Pridemore's support of education cuts a mistake.
"It should give people ample evidence of the difference in our records," Evers says. "He voted for those cuts, and those cuts have hurt our schools. He has said publicly that he doesn't think our schools need any more money, and that's just inconsistent with reality."
Evers says he's disappointed that Walker's 2013 budget does not do much to make up for his previous cuts, increasing state aid for education by just 1%.
"This budget will mean more of the same with bigger class sizes, fewer educators and reduced course offerings - while at the same time implementing great changes that ask more than ever of our public schools," Evers said in a statement.
Walker's budget would increase funding for the state's voucher schools by $73 million and expand the controversial program to cities across the state, including Madison. The program, begun in Milwaukee, allows parents to send their children to private schools that receive state funding for tuition.
Evers says he saw it coming.
"There are some people who would hope that public schools would not be in existence. That's why they call them 'government schools' so that people can say, 'Yeah, we don't like government schools.'"
But Evers insists there's another group of people for whom "choice" trumps the "common good."
"It's just the value system of our society now in general," he says.
Evers says the discussion about vouchers should focus on student success, not ideology.
"If we truly believe that we should be having best practices in our schools, there isn't a lot of data to suggest that the vouchers experiment in Milwaukee has succeeded," he says. "Those schools generally perform at about the same level as Milwaukee [public schools], sometimes lower than Milwaukee."
Pridemore takes the opposite view.
"Voucher schools are successful because they do offer competition, they do offer discipline in the classroom, they do offer better safety records. I've toured enough schools in Milwaukee to know that when you walk into a choice school the kids are attentive, they respect their teachers, many of them have dress codes that are enforced. They are excited about learning and they look forward to coming to school, and they know once they're in school they're safe."
Pridemore says he moved his own family to Hartford because he didn't want his children to attend Milwaukee public schools, citing their "lack of discipline [and] safety."
"Shortly after we moved out of Milwaukee there was a shooting at the very school my kids would have attended. Had my kids been in the path of that bullet, I would have been a very upset parent."
Pridemore was the lone Republican member of the Assembly to vote against Wisconsin's new concealed carry law, but it wasn't because he was concerned about gun violence. He thinks the law doesn't go far enough to protect the "constitutional right to carry" because a permit is required to carry a hidden gun.
"Why would you need a permit to exercise a constitutional right?" he asked in a press release explaining his vote.
Pridemore insists the core of his candidacy for superintendent is about local control - that is, about preventing the Department of Public Instruction from "dictating and mandating policy down to the local level."
But he has a hard time reconciling that philosophy with his support of provisions in Walker's budget that take local control away. The governor's budget not only expands vouchers without any kind of local approval, it creates a state charter-school oversight board that could authorize independent charter schools in any district.
"I applaud these first steps and look forward to greater choices in education for Wisconsin's students," he said in a statement.
When asked whether he would support requiring a local referendum in order to expand vouchers into a given district - which some Republican lawmakers are calling for - Pridemore hedges. He says he wouldn't be opposed to a referendum, but adds, "I don't necessarily think that's the best idea either."
More than anything, it seems, Pridemore wants to be a superintendent who would support the governor and his policies.
"He's got to rely on a friendly state superintendent to implement these programs. I believe he will have a much friendlier person in that office than the current occupant," he says. "We have the political power now to take back control of our schools. Education can be back in the hands of the teachers, the parents and the students."
As superintendent, Evers has not been entirely unfriendly to the governor. The two worked together last year to craft a new statewide school accountability system.
"We've had people come together to really accomplish some amazing things around new standards, new assessments," Evers says, defending the system's use of student test scores as a measure for disciplining or firing a teacher. "I think we reached a pretty fair compromise that indeed we can find a way to use test scores to help teachers understand their strengths and weaknesses."
In a statement that largely blasts Walker's 2013 budget, Evers goes out of his way to commend the governor.
"I appreciate his support for the ACT assessment, data systems, student academic and career plans, and educator effectiveness program."
Again, Pridemore takes the opposite tack, at least when it comes to the new accountability system.
"More accountability is good, but not necessarily dictated by DPI," he says. "Local control and local standards I think work best, and not every school district is the same."
Pridemore is unwilling, though, to criticize Walker's role in building the system he opposes.
"I believe Gov. Walker wants the best-educated kids he could possibly have," he says.
It seems the only thing the candidates agree on is that education in Wisconsin must change. For Evers, that means more funding and a more fair funding formula. It includes, he says, "minimum guaranteed aid for every school district in the state" and a funding shift to more impoverished areas.
For Pridemore, it means bringing Wisconsin back to what he believes was a more traditional time - a time before teachers unions existed.
"This country was founded on conservative principles. We've gotten away from those principles over the last 40 to 50 years, and we need to go back to what those principles were."