Two things have kind of been bugging me about the present race for state superintendent: One, even though it is not really true, the best candidate, Tony Evers, is going to be portrayed--already has been portrayed--as a part of the problem, a status quo candidate who cannot bring any kind of change to a bloated state bureaucracy. Two, the great eternal challenge of a position like state superintendent is that it has little policy-making authority: The state superintendent does what the legislature tells him or her to do, not the other way around. Sure, there's some pull when the budgets get submitted, but ultimately, the DPI chief enforces the law, not makes it.
When I talked to Evers last week, it was clear to me that neither of those two things--his being a status-quo candidate or his being a weak figure in government--were the least bit true. "I would be an aggressive state superintendent," he told me, emphatically. And immediately he started off listing off the ways in which he's pushed during the last eight years for change--from increases in funding for 4-year-old kindergarten to leveraging more federal dollars for AP programs and more.
Evers, in fact, bristled at the idea that the state superintendent was dependent on the legislature and the governor for policy changes. He told me of how he worked with parents and local schools to build a rural coalition that was too strong for the legislature to look the other way, and how they won categorical schools aids to rural districts for the first time ever. "That's how the bully pulpit works," he said. "The dirty work of the bully pulpit is the most effective."
Now I know that in these times of hopey-changiness, it would be kind of insane to run as the candidate of no change. However, I don't think Evers is just making it up. If anyone can pull off well the kind of large-scale change that's coming in things like school funding, it's Evers. He has a track record of being able to get ideological opponents together in a room and making them compromise. For example, he brought legislators together to craft the compromise expansion and accountability bill for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program a couple of years ago. Sure, it was in imperfect bill--and believe me, I was all over its flaws--but it didn't have to happen at all.
Evers is even now as we speak working with voucher proponents like Howard Fuller on bringing real accountability, what was missing from that bill two years ago, to the voucher schools in Milwaukee through a public-private school-by-school report card system. "If we will sill embrace choice as an unchallenged value," he said, giving no indication he would challenge it himself, "then we have to help people make the best choices."
When it comes to changes in school funding, Evers, doesn't have his own plan. However, like a few of the other candidates, he sees value in the work done by the Wisconsin School Finance Network, which is in many ways already a compromise solution.
When I asked him about the Milwaukee Public Schools, Evers pointed to the Milwaukee plan (.pdf) on his website. He is serious about both improving instruction in MPS and finding help for MPS's image and funding problems. Bullet point number one demands MPS "increase consistency of instructional practice across all schools," something independent-minded teachers often resist, for example, and he also talks about de-funding programs that don't work in favor of those that do. Several times as we talked he was clear that there must be accountability to the public--setting goals attached to the dollars spent, showing how well those goals were meant, and so on. He does not support dissolving the MPS board or anything like that, but he has all this accountability talk because, as he put it, "we've got to get to the point where the community trusts its elected leaders."
He's also got something called the Education 7 (or E7) he wants to organize, which would be the educational equivalent Milwaukee 7 (M7), the business group designed to promote the region. He wants to bring together educators from all levels in seven counties, public and private, to work together and promote the schools we have. "I don't think we do kids a service by making them think they could do better someplace else," he told me. And I had never quite thought of it that way, but he's right--nothing about the way MPS and its teachers and leaders gets disparaged does one thing to improve the district, but it does tell our students over and over that they are getting a sub-par education. That's not the way to turn a failing district around.
By now--heck, probably since the beginning of this post--you're probably thinking, Jay, why should we care? You're a WEAC thug so of course you're going to support the WEAC candidate. Think what you will; there is just one candidate for state superintendent right now who has a demonstrated record of coalition-building, working with the legislature, and fostering positive change in public schools across the state, and that's Tony Evers. He has my unqualified support, and deserves yours, too.