Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

Increasing school funding and restoring collective bargaining are at the center of nearly every major Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s prescription for education in the state.

Eight major candidates debated before Madison-area educators at a WEAC Region 6 hosted forum Sunday night. Their answers to questions ranging from the school funding formula to private school vouchers and school safety almost always circled back to lashing out at Gov. Scott Walker for Act 10 and cuts to public education.

The eight candidates in attendance were: Mike McCabe, Mahlon Mitchell, Andy Gronik, Kathleen Vinehout, Kelda Roys, Paul Soglin and Matt Flynn. State Rep. Dana Wachs was unable to attend due to a funeral for his longtime friend and law partner.

On issues like safety in schools, the candidates largely stressed funding as the answer. For instance, Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, gave a brief mention of banning assault rifles before arguing at length why providing funding to beef up school staffing levels is essential to increasing school safety.

And in their responses to a question about their views on private school voucher programs, each candidate underscored to varying degree that public funding should exclusively go to public schools, not private or charters.

McCabe, an independent activist running as a Dem, received a round of applause after criticizing voucher programs for siphoning off public funding to private institutions he argued are not better than their public counterparts.

“If a program works, fund it. If a program doesn’t work, get rid of it. By that standard, taxpayer- subsidized private schooling should end in Wisconsin,” McCabe said.

Vinehout, a state senator from Alma, argued the state should “look at what works and fund it” to address achievement gaps among African-American students.  

While several candidates supported eliminating vouchers for private and charter schools, Evers and Gronik were more cautious. Gronik, a Milwaukee businessman, supported ending voucher programs, but emphasized a transition period to ensure every public school would meet students needs.

“I’m not going to take a student out of a safe, productive educational environment, and won’t put them into a public school until it’s the very best choice,” he said.

Evers, the state superintendent, offered his own practical assessment.

“There’s 30,000 kids in these voucher schools. For anybody to say they’re going to be gone tomorrow is frankly BS,” he said.

Overall, the eight candidates’ responses to questions on education were quite similar. But there were some notable differences in the approach each thought to take.

For example, every candidate backed a repeal of Act 10, which repealed collective bargaining powers for most public employees. But Roys, a former state lawmaker, emphasized a practical approach to repeal that would depend on the outcome of the November midterms.

“We have to be honest about what Legislature looks like,” she said.

She added she’d first put the repeal into the state budget, and then see about pursuing other remedies.

Flynn, a Milwaukee attorney, said “it’s gonna get repealed, totally,” when talking about Act 10. He said he’d use executive order and veto power to attempt his repeal.

McCabe said he’d support a restoration of bargaining rights that would be rolled into a broader bill that would help workers in other major sectors. Along with repealing the law, Gronik said he’d also like to re-evaluate teachers’ entire compensation plans to ensure the state treats teachers as professionals. Soglin, the Madison mayor, echoed similar sentiments.

Candidates also diverged in their responses to a question on school safety. Candidates like Roys emphasized their tough stance on guns. She proposed a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases, universal background checks, a ban on assault rifles and taking on the National Rifle Association.

In his response, Evers repeated his mantra that he would “go to jail” before signing off on a law that would allow guns in classrooms. He went on to call for increased funding for mental and behavioral health programs.

Flynn pointed to guns as the main threat to school safety. His solution: increasing funding for school safety measures and banning all military-style weapons.

“I have no tolerance for military wannabes and crazy people, quite frankly,” he said.

And while the candidates showed similarities when asked how they would change the school funding formula, the question also provided a moment for several candidates to differentiate themselves.

Soglin, for instance, touted his proposal to increase income taxes for the top 3 percent of earners to better fund schools. His school funding formula would rely on population and district wealth, and would attempt to lessen a reliance on the local property tax.

Flynn, on the other hand, said he’d first look to rescind major tax credits like the manufacturing and agriculture tax credit.

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