Two college professors - one from the left, the other from the right. Two longtime education bureaucrats. And a parent activist with populist appeal.
All are on the Feb. 17 primary ballot for Wisconsin superintendent of Public Instruction. The top two vote-getters will face off in April to succeed Elizabeth Burmaster, who's stepping down after eight years.
Education policy makes for deep ideological fault lines. Conservatives urge private school vouchers, demand more basics and press to maintain state caps on teacher salaries and school property taxes. Liberals want more public school funding, smaller class sizes and an end to salary and tax caps.
Yet despite a vocal constituency on the right, money in DPI races flows more freely to liberal contenders, especially from the Wisconsin Education Association Council. And while conservative groups like the pro-voucher All Children Matter pour money into legislative or gubernatorial contests, they tend to sit out the DPI race.
"WEAC is the only interest group that has spent substantial sums in past state superintendent elections," says Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The statewide teachers union spent $343,000 to boost Burmaster in 2005, when she trounced challenger Greg Underheim, outspending him by more than three to one. (This week, WEAC announced that it is backing candidate Tony Evers, Burmaster's former deputy.)
Burmaster, no fan of vouchers, has nonetheless accommodated the state's only voucher plan, in Milwaukee. That creates a dilemma for voucher backers, Underheim notes: "If they get involved and lose, they risk creating a hostile superintendent where they had a neutral superintendent."
Burt Grover, a former DPI head from the 1980s, argues that the job is less about policy than administration. For all the success teachers have had in getting their candidates elected, the DPI chief has less clout than either the governor or Legislature, Grover says.
What follows are overviews of the five candidates.
Bio: Age 57; deputy state superintendent.
Evers, a former high school principal and district superintendent, became Burmaster's deputy after running against her in the 1993 primary. But he shrugs off the suggestion that he represents a third Burmaster term.
"People are electing me," not her, he says. "The day I walk in, I'm going to be focused on my agenda." At the top of his list: making school funding fairer and sustainable in the long term. "Inequalities [among districts] are not acceptable."
Evers would push to raise revenue caps and keep the state commitment to funding two-thirds of school costs. But he doesn't favor taking schools off the property tax, fearing a loss of local engagement.
On the issues: Evers would keep Milwaukee's voucher program but not expand it, pending the results of a 10-year study now under way. He says state support for charter schools should continue, but "we need to tighten accountability."
Evers praises the state-funded SAGE program to reduce class sizes and would consider expanding it "when the time is right." His favorite movie about education: To Sir, With Love.
Bio: Age 51; pediatric nurse, Mukwonago; president, Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families.
Fernandez became an advocate for families enrolled in the state's controversial virtual schools, calling a lawsuit against them filed by WEAC and backed by DPI "outrageous." She lobbied to pass a law that kept virtual schools open, earning the notice of longtime GOP operative Brian Fraley, who's now advising her.
If elected, Fernandez vows a "turnaround team" for Milwaukee schools, which she pegs as the state's number-one education problem. She calls it "a way to get the conversation going."
Fernandez supports the Milwaukee voucher program but is noncommittal on expansion; she says the state needs more charter schools. She calls efforts to reduce class size "a local budgetary decision" that each district "would have to justify to their taxpayers."
Fernandez's favorite education films: Good-Bye, Mr. Chips (the 1939 version) and Stand and Deliver.
Bio: Age 51; superintendent, Beloit School District.
With stints as a principal in rural Peshtigo and as a superintendent in Beloit, Holtz presents himself as pragmatic, experienced and strongly nonideological.
"Every district I've been in, whether it was a rural district or an urban district, we've been able to make some drastic improvements in student achievement," says Holtz. He wants more partnerships with businesses and community institutions, saying opportunities and jobs will be lost "if we don't stop being isolationist with K-12 education." What's happened to schools in Milwaukee, where he was raised, "breaks my heart."
On vouchers, Holtz calls for accountability and says, "We should have fixed the Milwaukee public school system." He's fine with charter schools and not opposed to expanding vouchers "if the system becomes more accountable."
Holtz calls class-size reduction (the subject of his academic dissertation) "absolutely the easiest thing you can do to improve educational opportunities for kids." His favorite education film: Ferris Bueller's Day Off[!].
Bio: Age 40; professor of history and economics, Concordia University; Thiensville village trustee.
A longstanding Republican, Mobley calls himself a "pragmatic conservative" who doesn't parrot GOP stands. His top priority: maintaining the teacher salary cap and district revenue limits. He says many people are "teetering on the edge" in the current economy: "I just don't think they can pay any higher property taxes."
With a twang from his Alabama childhood, Mobley wants a return to educational basics, but he also cites his village board experience to help manage a new era of school construction.
Mobley would continue but not expand vouchers ("that's a losing fight given teacher union opposition") and is not gung-ho on charter schools. "I would rather just work on reforming some of the regular old public schools."
Mobley calls the questions over class size "simply one of available resources." His favorite education film: Dead Poets Society.
Bio: Age 45; lives in Kenosha; associate professor, National-Louis University.
Like Mobley, Price is an academic, but represents the opposite end of the political spectrum, with Green Party backing. He's the race's "strongest advocate for keeping public education public." He thinks some districts are not adequately funded; his solution is, by his own admission, radical: amending the U.S. Constitution to require federal tax support for local education.
"We already place onerous mandates on the schools," he says. "We just don't fund them."
On vouchers, Price is dead-set against: "We should never use taxpayer money to fund private entities." He's okay with charters "as long as the public taxpayer money stays within the public fund for public schools."
Price says Wisconsin should encourage "schools within schools" to create smaller classes and school communities. His favorite education film: Pink Floyd The Wall [!!].
Freelance writer Erik Gunn provides editing services for certain university-based education policy research groups. This article reflects his reporting and analysis and not those of any clients.