When Tony Evers takes over as governor of Wisconsin this January, he will bring over three decades of education experience to the position.
Local school administrators in cities like Eau Claire see several issues that Wisconsin is currently facing in its education system. Varying concerns and priorities from different educators presents many challenges that the future governor will be expected to address.
Evers will also need to find a replacement to take on his previous position as Superintendent of Public Schools in Wisconsin. One potential candidate will be the current deputy superintendent who has held the position for 10 years, Mike Thompson.
Having worked directly with Evers on Wisconsin education for the past decade gives Thompson exposure to the motivations of the future governor. He says Evers’ top priority in schools has always been assisting each individual student in their own unique and specific challenges. With his end goal being all kids leaving Wisconsin schools, “Career and college ready.”
“That’s still undecided,” said Thompson in regard to Governor-elect Evers potential appointment of him for the post. “It depends on how Tony’s going to handle that whole transition phase.”
According to Mary Kleush, recently retired Department of Public Instruction Supervisor of WEOP (Wisconsin Educational Opportunity Program), “That is the big question.”
Kleush and Thompson started working at the DPI six moths apart from each other in 1989 and have worked together on the Wisconsin Student Services Team and on in-school alcohol and drug programs.
“He is clearly a strong supporter of students,” Kleush said of her former colleague. She added that she would certainly be supportive of Thompson being appointed the Wisconsin Superintendent position.
Regardless of who fills the post, people working in education across the state have their own expectations. Resources for special needs children, funding sources and a need to diversify the teaching pool are all concerns, local educators say.
For the past seven years Mary Ann Hardebeck has been Superintendent of School in Eau Claire. She has also worked with Thompson on school policy and reiterated the concept of making sure every student, regardless of and special needs, is career and college ready.
“Certainly, Mike Thompson has had a lot of experience at the state level. I think he would certainly be a highly qualified applicant or contender,” said Hardebeck.
Hardebeck credits Evers with developing the concept of career and college ready and said he raised the bar for what all students are capable of achieving in Wisconsin. She is also supportive of the equitable approach used by Evers as Superintendent, another concept that resonated with Thompson.
“Tony had a strong commitment to equity. And what I mean when I talk about equity is it’s providing kids what they need, when they need it, to succeed,” said Thompson. “There are certain challenges kids face that other kids don’t. Such as children with disabilities, children with mental health issues, children that are homeless and children that are limited English proficient.”
Thompson said that funding is nearly always the issue when it comes to keeping educational institutions at top-performance and will be working with Evers on a new budget proposition for the near future. The budget is still in the works, but Thompson said Evers does not plan on raising any taxes to generate an additional $600 million for schools. Evers’ vision of Fair Funding for Our Future is available on the DPI website.
“It’s really about equalizing funding for all students across the state,” said Hardebeck regarding changes she hopes for during Evers’ term as governor.
“We have some achievement gaps, particularly with student who are in poverty,” she said. “That is a real challenge because students are coming with such great needs and we try to support them not only academically, but in their social and emotional development.”
Hardebeck said that Eau Claire is doing an admirable job in assisting its special needs children but added there can never be enough support. English-limited students are also a growing demographic in Eau Claire schools which Hardebeck points out represents an increasingly diversifying City of Eau Claire.
“We have English language learners. We have students who are in the larger groups like Spanish. We have Chinese students. We have students from Bulgaria. We have students from Iran,” she said.
Struggling to diversify the teaching force has been a huge issue in all Wisconsin schools, according to Thompson. Hardebeck said Eau Claire is no exception to this rule as students from all parts of the world are finding their home in the area.
“That’s what we’re working toward,” Hardebeck said. “To try to recruit staff that is more representative of our students. It’s a real challenge not only here. Fewer and fewer people are going into education.”
“It’s about recruiting people into the teaching profession and that means providing opportunities for people in high schools to experience this as a profession, as a pathway to a career,” said Thompson on how to potentially resolve the issue.
Other educators like University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Professor of Music Dr. Frank Watkins have other concerns about the future of Wisconsin education.
Watkins wants to know, “What is he (Evers) going to do for the arts?” Hardebeck of Eau Claire schools says that her district is doing an amazing job in keeping their students engaged in the arts. The walls of the conference room that she holds her meetings in are lined with the creations of many young students from the district.
“We have a really strong music program, we’re known for that,” she said. “We have a strong arts program. We’d like to do more in those areas. As you’re looking at the nature of the whole child that artistic piece is very, very important,” said Hardebeck.
On a state level Thompson seems to echo the same message. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a Bush Administration policy that focused on the subject areas of reading and math. A consequence was that many artistic programs were neglected, but Thompson is glad this policy has now been changed.
“We have a vision around here that means to be career and college ready. It’s having the knowledge and the skills,” he said. “When I talk about skills I’m talking about communication, collaboration, creativity, and habits,” said Thompson. “And music and the arts are part and parcel of what this state provides kids to be successful.”
On the night he was elected governor Evers tweeted, “A change is coming, Wisconsin.” Education will likely be subject to change given Evers’ history as an educator. In Eau Claire though, Hardebeck has a clear vision for what she desired out of public education in the State of Wisconsin.
“At the end of the day you want students to come out of your schools prepared for adulthood,” she said. “That means being academically prepared, being able to find a place in the workplace, and kind of find their place in life. But you really want them to be good people.”