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The insider vs. the upstart
Candidates differ sharply on how they'd guide education in Wisconsin

Tony Evers: 'My strength is working with people.' Rose Fernandez: 'We have to put children first.'
Tony Evers: 'My strength is working with people.' Rose Fernandez: 'We have to put children first.'
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It's a classic political face-off: a seasoned professional with a mile-long résumé and a host of influential backers versus a relative neophyte with a fervent grassroots base.

It happened in last year's presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and it's happening in Wisconsin now, in the race to run the state Department of Public Instruction.

Standing in for Clinton is Tony Evers (tonyevers.com), currently deputy superintendent to retiring DPI head Elizabeth Burmaster. Evers, 57, is the choice of the state's education establishment, including unions and professional groups representing teachers and administrators.

This kind of backing has been critical to Burmaster and her predecessors, who've had little trouble dispatching challengers over the last two decades. The easy analysis is that heavy union spending should ensure Evers' victory April 7.

That is, unless Rose Fernandez (changedpi.com) pulls an Obama.

Fernandez, 51, who finished a close second in the five-way Feb. 17 primary, is a pediatric nurse who became a parent activist on behalf of families of children enrolled in "virtual" schools. She led the charge for the online academies after their existence was threatened by a court ruling sought by DPI.

The race is officially nonpartisan, and both candidates eschew identifying with political parties. But as in past races, the candidates and their supporters seem to fall into two camps: center/left (Evers) or right (Fernandez). And the campaigns reflect the ideological fissures dominating discourse regarding education reform.

Tony Evers' campaign reflects an attitude of conciliation, not confrontation. Wisconsin schools are trying hard; parents, teachers and public school systems are all in this together; and DPI needs an advocate for more and better programs. He says the state should keep funding two-thirds of public school costs while steering additional funds to schools where needs are greater because of poverty.

Evers calls for improving teacher quality through training, mentoring and "new and innovative systems for educator compensation." He would broaden accountability beyond merely comparing standardized test scores, allowing "multiple assessment tools." And he would enhance school safety through programs ranging from smaller classes and school counselors to anti-bullying campaigns.

His slogan: "Experience, Leadership and Change."

"I have 34 years of experience in the public schools of Wisconsin," says Evers, who got his start as a teacher in Tomah, Wis. There he helped create a program for gifted and talented students "where none ever existed before." He's also worked as a principal, superintendent, regional education administrator and, for the last eight years, Burmaster's deputy.

Evers says he's been able to "lead organizations of various size and complexity," as well as "expand learning opportunities for children [and] initiate change initiatives." (Yes, he really talks like that.)

At DPI, Evers has helped pioneer programs, secure grants and head up projects such as expanding access to advanced placement programs in rural areas.

"It's easy to talk about change, but I've experienced it and led change," he says. "My strength is working with people to create critical mass so that legislators and others understand the importance of public education.... That's what leadership's about, and that's what I've been doing my entire life."

Rose Fernandez and her supporters, meanwhile, stake out an Us vs. Them position, blaming teachers unions and education bureaucrats - including the staff of the agency she hopes to lead - for ignoring troubled schools, especially in Milwaukee, the state's largest district.

"For all too long we have had a single special interest calling the shots at our state Department of Public Instruction, and that has to end," she says. "We have to put children first."

For her, this means maintaining "a laser-like focus on what brings us the outcomes that we're looking for." She deplores "an entrenched bureaucracy at the department that's responded more to the state teacher-labor-union bosses."

The centerpiece of Fernandez's campaign biography is her role as president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, which supports academies set up by public school districts to teach kids at home over the Internet.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) sued DPI and one online school, Wisconsin Virtual Academy, seeking to have it shut down. DPI ultimately joined the union in asking the court to shut down the school.

An appeals court in 2007 ordered DPI to stop funding the school, operated by the Northern Ozaukee School District, because it enrolled students from outside its home district and used parents in place of state-licensed teachers.

Fernandez is livid at the DPI's role in bringing about this result: "They slammed the door in the face of the superintendents who saw these schools as a valuable part of their local school districts. They were responsive to a narrow special-interest agenda rather than the needs of individual children."

Not so, responds Evers. He notes that DPI was originally a defendant and sided against the schools only when it became clear during the lawsuit how much of the instruction was being done by parents, not teachers.

"We have an obligation under state law to enforce [licensing requirements]," he says. "So we sided with the plaintiffs..., and we won."

In the aftermath, Fernandez rallied virtual-school families and won passage of legislation that allowed the schools to continue operating. Evers notes that DPI supported the bill.

"I don't see villains here," he says. "It's just one of those situations where the law hadn't caught up with the reality on the ground."

Both candidates agree that one of Wisconsin's most pressing educational issues is the sorry state of schools in Milwaukee.

There, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ACT scores are 20% below the state average, 10th-grade proficiency levels are at 30% to 40%, and graduation rates are 60% to 70%.

"Every community will be dealing with the impact of the floundering that's going on in the Milwaukee school district," says Fernandez. "We're losing generation after generation after generation because of our failure to educate [students there]. That's a moral failure as well as a fiscal failure, a system failure. Our Department of Public Instruction has been a hands-off bystander, and that has to stop."

Evers disagrees, noting that his opponent has never worked in the public schools herself and suggesting her critique is overly simplistic. "I think the complexity of public education goes beyond saying, 'We've got to reform and change,'" he says. "It has to do with understanding the process and the system."

Retorts Fernandez: "Tony Evers has a lot of experience. He has experience watching MPS fail generations of Milwaukee children as he stood by watching. He has experience ignoring parents, experience being intimidated by innovation, experience in doing everything WEAC tells him to do. He has experience as part of the business-as-usual, big-bureaucracy status quo. What we need now is a fresh approach."

Talk like that has helped Fernandez capture one constituency: talk radio hosts. Charlie Sykes endorsed her just before the primary, possibly helping boost her numbers in Milwaukee County, where she bested Evers 39% to 31% and carried the city of Milwaukee by 240 votes.

But right-wing talkers like Sykes haven't had much luck actually getting their favorite candidates elected. And while Fernandez did well in some GOP strongholds in the primary, Evers carried a broad range of counties across the state.

Ryan Gruber, a dissident Republican and former state legislative aide who blogs at Playground Politics, has criticized Fernandez's approach.

"Nobody in Eau Claire or Superior or Green Bay or La Crosse cares about the fact that Milwaukee's schools suck," he wrote in a February blog post. It's a losing strategy, he argued, to be "...talking about vanity issues like MPS and school choice that have virtually zero appeal outside southeast Wisconsin."

And though Gruber is not backing Evers, he credits him with "framing the issues correctly" by appealing to a broad agenda: "Creating safe and respectful schools. Improving graduation rates. Educational innovation. Recruiting and retaining quality teachers. Fair and sustainable funding. Accountability for results."

On April 7 we'll find out if that's the winning formula, or if Rose Fernandez will be able to tap into enough resentment.

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.

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