MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker is calling himself an “education governor,” launching a new ad Tuesday touting recent increases in funding as he sets a goal to make Wisconsin’s high school graduation rates the highest in the country.
The moves come as Walker tries to blunt attacks from 10 Democratic opponents who have made criticism of the two-term Republican incumbent’s education record central to their campaigns.
One is state Superintendent Tony Evers, who’s in his third term as leader of public education for the state and signed the petition to recall Walker over anger at his Act 10 law that targeted teachers’ collective bargaining powers.
But Walker, in an interview with The Associated Press, said he’s not ceding any ground on education.
“We firmly believe we’ve got the case to be made that I’m an education governor,” Walker said. “If I didn’t run an ad on education, all these campaigns would say ‘Look, he’s not running on education.’ No matter what I say, they’re going to say the opposite.”
Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman TJ Helmstetter said Walker has put politics above public schools and voters will see through his attempt to “rewrite history.”
“Walker knows he’s weak on this issue, and Democrats will continue to hold him accountable,” Helmstetter said.
Evers and the other Democratic candidates have accused Walker of not spending enough on K-12 public schools while he has expanded the private school voucher program. They also say he hasn’t done enough to help students burdened by college loan debt.
Then there’s his signature act as governor, in his first year in office in 2011, to pass the Act 10 law that effectively eliminated collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public workers. It forced them to pay more for their health insurance and retirement — a cost to them but a savings to school districts and local governments.
The Democrats running against Walker have pledged to try and repeal Act 10 if they win. But Walker said doing that would cripple schools and force them to raise local property taxes.
Teachers angered over the Act 10 law were deeply involved in protests and the effort to recall Walker, which he survived in 2012. Walker has tried to rebuild his image with them and voters concerned about education ever since, bolstering funding in recent years and making a more concerted effort to visit public schools the past two years.
In the new Walker ad, a Racine public school special education teacher praises Walker for giving schools more flexibility to spend money in the classroom — a veiled reference to Act 10. That law freed up more money for schools, which helped them deal with a $426 million cut in funding during Walker’s first year in office. Since then, Walker has slowly added more funding for K-12 schools, including a $200 per-student funding increase last year and this.
The teacher, identified only by her first name of Anita, praises Walker for that additional funding as well.
Walker said his graduation pledge, made in the interview with AP rather than in the TV ad, would help make more people employable. Wisconsin has historically ranked in the top 10 nationally and was tied for ninth at 88 percent graduation in 2016, the most recent year available at the National Center for Education Statistics.
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