State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers says while he’s not approaching his second re-election bid any differently, he could pivot on his approach to the job.

And that pivot would amount to a shift toward prioritizing children’s emotional and social well-being over test scores, Evers said.

“I think we’ve become too enamored with chasing test scores as a state and as a nation, and I hope I can provide some of leadership around that area where we begin to focus more appropriately,” he said in a WisPolitics.com interview.

Evers, who was elected superintendent in 2009 and has worked in public education for 40-plus years, said he’s seeking a third four-year term because he thinks he’s had “good success” in acting as the “chief advocate for 860,000 kids” across Wisconsin. Evers faces two challengers in the Feb. 21 primary; the two winners will advance to the April 4 general election.

As for his campaign, Evers said he’ll continue to count on the support of educators, teachers, parents and grandparents across the state to hold onto his seat, as he said he did four years ago when he beat back an easy challenge from former state Rep. Don Pridemore, R-Hartford.

Both of his challengers, John Humphries and Lowell Holtz, have slammed Evers for the state’s wide achievement gaps and failing to deal with low-performing schools. But Evers defended his tenure and pointed to his work with Milwaukee Public Schools, where collaboration extended the school year and school day, as well as improving the quality of early childhood programming and more.

Ultimately, he said, disparities won’t be solved by a “dictate from Madison.”

“There’s no silver bullet here. There’s a lot of work,” Evers said. “What we have to do as a state is be partners with our local schools that are struggling and families. But as far as the idea that somehow I could come riding in on a white horse and making this turnaround is just not the way it works.”

For the upcoming biennial budget, Evers is asking for an additional $707 million in state aid for public schools, up from his $613 million request in the 2015-17 budget. While he won’t get everything he is asking for, the budget is gaining some traction among Republicans.

But critics say the Department of Public Instruction should be more efficient and throwing more money at it won’t solve the issue. Evers counters that the need for more K-12 funding is backed up by school ballot issues voted on in November 2016 and April 2015.

In the April 2015 election, 50 out of 75 referenda passed, while the November general election saw voters approving 55 of 67 referenda, according to DPI data.

“If the people of Wisconsin believed that schools are adequately funded, 600,000 people wouldn’t have voted to increase their own taxes,” he said.

And Evers added that many of the same people who voted for Donald Trump also voted to pass the ballot issues.

“If you look at this last election, 85 percent of this referenda passed. It was all by wide margins, and the same people that voted for Mr. Trump voted to increase their own taxes on themselves,” he said.

Meanwhile, Evers said he sees “some appetite” among lawmakers and Walker to fund key issues such as mental health or rural schools, as well as a potential increase funding increase for school districts.

Walker this week unveiled his rural schools initiative, which would bring about $66.5 million in additional funding in the upcoming budget. The guv pledged an increased broadband investment, more transportation aid to rural school districts and full funding of many DPI budget request items targeted to help rural schools.

In response to the announcement, Evers in a statement credited Walker’s approach, but said it falls short in addressing teacher shortages across rural school districts. Evers trumpeted a measure he proposed in his budget request that equalizes school funding among rural and wealthier, more urban districts that he says would “stem the tide” of teachers leaving rural districts.

Meanwhile, during the WisPolitics.com interview, Evers took shots at the current state school funding formula, calling it “broken.” But he also hopes the Legislature takes a serious look at fixing it. He said the way the state is now funding schools is “probably as dis-equalizing as it’s ever been” because the formula not only doesn’t provide enough funds to school districts but also doesn’t provide funds to accurately reflect student needs.

“Kids that come from impoverished families, or English-learning families, students with disabilities, they may very well need an extra lift. And that extra lift sometimes translates into extra resources, and so we need to have the funding system reflect that,” he said. “It doesn’t do that now.”

The general school aid formula, also called the equalization aid formula, seeks to equalize the tax bases between school districts, therefore minimizing the differences among schools in their abilities to raise tax revenue for education programs. By providing state aid through the formula, a district theoretically can support a certain level of per-student expenditures as another district, regardless of property tax wealth.

Over the last eight years as superintendent, Evers said he has been working to overhaul the formula. When asked about Assembly Speaker Robin Vos assigning Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, to look into revamping it, Evers applauded the effort but warned the change would be hard and require “a fair amount of money.”

When it comes to school voucher expansion, Evers called himself a “realist,” saying he doesn’t anticipate any changes to it going forward. But he added he doesn’t want voucher schools funded “at the expensive of public schools.”

“If I had a magic wand, I’d have voucher schools and subsidies be shouldered by the state 100 percent, instead of by local school districts,” he said.

Evers also said he was against letting concealed carry permit holders bring guns to a school campus and for transgender students using the bathroom for the gender they identify with, calling it a “reasonable accommodation.”

Evers also commented on an upcoming bill from Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, that would require all high school students participating in extracurricular activities in the state to be subject to random drug testing. Kleefisch said last year he was drafting the bill, which would also require DPI to develop a model policy to guide schools under the bill.

Evers said there shouldn’t be a state mandate, but instead local officials should be allowed to make the call.

“There are schools that feel it’s an appropriate way to intervene,” Evers said. “I question that rationale, but I think that’s best left up to the local school boards.”

Humphries, meanwhile, has declined to take a position on these three proposals, both at a state superintendent candidate forum in Monona last month and in a WisPolitics.com interview last week.

Evers blasted Humphries for his refusal to weigh in on these and other issues, in responding to criticism from Humphries during the WisPolitics.com interview that Evers takes a “his way or the highway” approach in dealing with lawmakers. Evers pushed back on that, saying it was his duty to take a position on important issues.

And taking a stand on issues is something Humphries doesn’t do, Evers said.

“People in this state made this a constitutional position because they thought it was important and they thought public education’s important. And as a constitutional officer, you have an obligation to take positions,” Evers said. “And that doesn’t mean it’s my way or the highway.”

Hear the audio from Evers’ interview:

 

See the Wispolitics.com interview with Humphries

See the WisPolitics.com interview with Holtz

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