During his annual “State of Education” address in the Capitol on Thursday, Wisconsin state superintendent Tony Evers never mentioned Gov. Scott Walker.
But Evers, who has announced he will run for governor as a Democratic candidate in 2018, criticized some of Walker’s policies, including his decisions to reject federal dollars for Medicaid expansion and proposal to borrow millions for the state’s transportation budget.
In his speech, Evers argued that the state’s priorities are not in the right place for school funding, as well as aspects of healthcare and transportation for students. He called on the audience to be the “adults in the room,” and face problems with grassroots leadership.
Evers started his address by describing the “challenging times” for Wisconsin students, listing racial inequities, student loan debt and job uncertainty among student concerns.
He said these challenges need to be faced “head on.” He addressed public education funding as the first of those challenges.
Although this year’s state budget, signed by Walker Thursday, increases K-12 education funding for the next two years by $639 million, Evers saw room for improvement.
He said that past budget cycles had not made public education a priority, and pointed out that funding has fallen from 40 to 32 percent of the state’s tax dollars in the last 10 years. The state is below the national average for education funding, he said. He called sufficient education funding the “best job creation strategy on the books.”
But because the Legislature “wasn’t getting it done,” Evers said, grassroots advocacy groups took action. Thanks to their efforts, 1.1 million residents voted to raise taxes to support schools.
“Now is the time to fix our broken school finance system,” he said in the address, noting this was especially needed in “school districts that have low funding staring them in the face.”
Today, the Associated Press reported that Evers called on the state Legislature to override one of Walker’s budget vetoes and allow some school districts to raise property taxes without a referendum.
Evers also talked about the importance of students’ health. He said lunch supervisors in Superior told him they watch the lunch lines on Monday for students who are weak after a weekend without food.
But hunger is not the only factor in health, and Evers argued that Medicaid has a direct impact on student success. One third of rural students in Wisconsin rely on Medicaid, he said.
“We need to stop leaving money on the table and take the federal dollars associated with Medicaid,” Evers said. “Every additional Medicaid dollar ensures more Wisconsin kids have the health care they need.”
Walker has rejected federal incentives to expand Medicaid programs in the state. Evers said that when Wisconsin uses additional state funds to pay for health care, it takes money away from school funding.
Evers also touched on transportation spending, advocating for repair of roads “riddled with potholes.”
“If schools are the center of our communities, what happens when roads and bridges connecting those places begin to crumble?” he asked.
He noted that some kids are forced to ride the bus for two hours, which takes up time that could otherwise be spent learning, playing or with their families.
He noted that there have been some “bipartisan successes increasing transportation aid,” but “deep structural problems remain.”
Evers argued that there are “more than enough solutions” to make it possible to fix road and fund schools.
“I’m sick of the politics, the false choices, and the endless debates on this issue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.
He spoke against borrowing more money for transportation, as this would “saddle our kids with the debt,” he said. In his original budget proposal, Walker called for $500 million in borrowing for the Department of Transportation. The final deal brought that down to about $402 million.
But Evers also found room for praise in the current budget, pointing to increased spending for school mental health initiatives like mental health training, social workers and community programs.
Evers also highlighted the Department of Public Institutions partnerships with other agencies like the Department of Children and Families and Department of Workforce Development.
He ended his speech on an optimistic note, encouraging the audience to “never stop talking about the good work of the teachers in our communities.”
“We live in challenging times,” he said. “But the examples of leadership in our classrooms, public libraries, schools, and communities absolutely inspire me.”