Lowell Holtz’s bid for state schools superintendent is grounded in local control and collaboration to solve what he says are unacceptable statewide graduation and achievement rates.
It’s a strategy Holtz says he’s used multiple times in several Wisconsin school districts. And each time, the approach has worked, he added.
Now he wants to apply it at the state’s top education post now held by Tony Evers. Evers also is being challenged by three others. The primary is Feb. 21 and the spring election is April 4.
Holtz said he chose to run after reading reports Wisconsin is the nation’s worst in graduation gaps and achievement rates. He said his research showed more than 7,000 kids fail to graduate every year, and schools spend more than $500 million on dropouts annually.
“I was shocked and, quite frankly, ashamed,” he said, “that we were failing an entire generation of kids.”
The solution, Holtz said, is to stop forcing kids to attend failing schools. Those students need opportunities to learn the skills that will make them employable, he said.
“Low-performing schools are not the fault of teachers, parents or students; it’s the fault of the system that’s currently in place,” Holtz said. “And we cannot continue to lose more than 7,000 children per year because we do not have the knowledge or the courage to put a system in place that will lead to their success.”
Though he has the backing of several GOP lawmakers, Holtz wouldn’t categorize himself as liberal or conservative: he opted instead to call himself “kid-servative.” He said he has “very traditional values” but added a nonpartisan race requires the focus be on students.
“I do believe in the need to return local control to our districts and eliminate the overreach of the federal government through programs like Common Core and the Student Identification System,” he said, “because I learned quickly that every school district is unique with different strengths and needs.”
Holtz’s background is rooted in Wisconsin schools. His father was the pastor of Milwaukee’s St. Martini, which Holtz said was one of the first voucher schools in the city.
Holtz, 59, started out as a third and fourth grade teacher at a parochial school before moving to Whitewater and becoming a police officer. He kept that job while getting his master’s in education from UW-Madison.
After graduating, he took a job in the School District of Cambridge before heading to northern Wisconsin for a position as principal. He then earned his doctorate in educational leadership and took the superintendent post at Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.
When he later took over the Beloit School District, he said, it was facing a string of problems and looming state sanctions. He said he focused on collaboration and local control to solve truancy, achievement, safety and graduation problems.
“As a result, achievement levels went through the roof,” he said.
Holtz’s most recent stop was as superintendent of the Whitnall School District in suburban Milwaukee. He retired from that post June 30 when he decided to run for state superintendent.
Since he announced his candidacy, Holtz said, he has gathered endorsements and support from multiple local and state officials. Those include: retired Rep. Don Pridemore, a Republican who ran a failed bid against Evers for state superintendent in 2013; Rep. Thomas Weatherston, R-Caledonia; Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin; and former UW quarterback Joel Stave, who attended Whitnall High School.
Here’s Holtz on some key issues:
Holtz said he supports parents having a right to choose the best school for their children. And, he said, “collaboration and friendly competition” is good for the system.
“I have no problems with the concept of a voucher in every backpack,” Holtz said. “Public schools, parochial schools, private schools, choice schools, charter schools can all thrive in that kind of competitive yet supportive environment.”
He said the programs don’t need to take money away from public schools. The only schools that need to worry about competition, he said, are those that are failing. In those instances, the parents should have the right to choose for their children, Holtz said.
Turning around failing MPS schools
The Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, a new state law written by Republican lawmakers, calls for some struggling schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools system to fall under the oversight of the county executive and an appointed commissioner.
Holtz called it a “symbolic” and “admirable” effort because it was one of the first attempts to solve the problem of failing schools. The solution proposed by the law, though, was “too small,” he said.
“But you do not change decades of failing schools and, honestly, institutionalized racism from DPI that has accepted the failure of our minority students,” he said, “you don’t do that with a small effort.”
Administrative rules oversight at DPI
Republicans in 2011 enacted Act 21, which gave the governor and DOA secretary oversight of administrative rules written by state agencies. But a split state Supreme Court in May found that oversight was improper regarding the state schools superintendent and the DPI.
Holtz said he supports the rulemaking authority but thinks there should be more checks and balances.
“There is a lot of power in this position,” he said. “Our government was built on a system of checks and balances, and I’d be in favor of investigating how we can provide more of that so it’s less of a dictatorial type of position.”
Holtz said he has changed his mind on increasing school funding. Originally, he said, he “bought into the idea” of spending more money to solve the problems.
But the results didn’t change, he said, and his research showed billions of dollars wasted over the years. Schools simply need to spend the money more wisely, Holtz said.
“Instead of wasting the money on a failing system that’s a drain on the taxpayers across the entire state,” he said, “we need to work in collaboration with our communities and business leaders to turn around a failing system.”
Listen to the full interview: