Republican lawmakers differ on state superintendent race

January 20, 2017


MADISON Republican state lawmakers who head committees charged with overseeing education policy in Wisconsin disagree on who should be the next state superintendent.

Two challengers to Superintendent Tony Evers have garnered support from conservatives as they try to unseat Evers, who is backed by Democrats and teacher unions. The race is officially nonpartisan, but support in Evers' past two runs has largely broken down along party lines.

That makes it all the more surprising that Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is backing Evers and not challengers John Humphries or Lowell Holtz.

"I just am not sure we need a change," Olsen told The Associated Press in an interview this week. "I don't see a need."

That's in stark contrast to Assembly Education Committee chairman Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, a Republican who not only backs Humphries but also is co-chair of the campaign and appeared with Humphries when he launched his candidacy.

Humphries said he disagreed with Olsen's belief that no change was needed in leadership at the state Department of Public Instruction, or DPI.

"Tony Evers has been at DPI for 16 years as No. 1 or No. 2," Humphries said at a Milwaukee news conference where he proposed revamping school report cards. "He hasn't helped schools improve like other states have. That's the critical role that DPI can play in leadership and support for schools and unfortunately if Sen. Olson doesn't see that, I think we have to disagree. Wisconsin can do better."

Evers welcomed Olsen's support, calling him a state and national education leader.

"Sen. Olsen has been a great advocate for our kids," Evers said in an emailed statement. "He listens to parents, teachers and students."

Olsen was particularly dismissive of Humphries' call to create a state school board. Wisconsin is one of only three states that does not have one.

"The Legislature is a state school board," Olsen said. "How many cooks in the kitchen do you want?"

Evers and other critics have said the same thing, and even Thiesfeldt, who said he was open to creating a state board, said he wouldn't propose the required constitutional amendment to make the change.

Humphries is a former consultant for DPI, which he would run as state superintendent. He recently resigned from an administrator position with the Dodgeville school district but continues working there as a consultant.

Humphries and Holtz are both vocal backers of the school choice program, including using taxpayer money for vouchers for students to attend private schools. Evers opposes expansion of the program, which has been a priority for Republicans in recent years.

Olsen has been more critical than some Republicans about the voucher program, but did vote to expand it statewide and increase the amount of payments to participating families. Thiesfeldt has been an outspoken advocate for the choice program.

Many officeholders have been reluctant in past races to endorse candidates given that the race is nonpartisan. Humphries has tried to garner bipartisan support for his campaign, for which Democratic state Rep. Jason Fields, a voucher supporter, is a co-chair. And Humphries, like Evers, signed the petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker from office in 2011.

Walker, a voucher supporter who has also worked closely with Evers on a variety of initiatives, did not endorse anyone in 2013 when Evers defeated then-state Rep. Don Pridemore, a Republican. Pridemore now backs Holtz, the former superintendent at the Beloit and Whitnall school districts.

Racine high school student Rick Melcher is also running as a write-in candidate. The top two vote-getters in the Feb. 21 primary will advance to the April 4 general election.

Superintendent candidate Humphries proposes new report card

MADISON State superintendent candidate John Humphries says current report cards showing how well Wisconsin students and school districts are performing are a "disaster" and should be overhauled.

But incumbent state Superintendent Tony Evers says Humphries' proposed changes amount to a "top-down dictate" that won't work.

Humphries wants to change the measurement for how students are determined to be proficient on state tests, use letter grades for schools, track students on pace to close achievement gaps and focus high school reports on graduation rates.

Under his proposed changes, most Wisconsin schools would receive a failing F grade in academic achievement. Evers calls that a "ridiculous notion."

Evers defends the current report card, which was created with input from Evers, the governor, lawmakers and others.

State superintendent candidate defends dental work

MADISON State superintendent candidate John Humphries on Thursday paid a dentist $300 for teeth whitening that he initially accepted for free as an in-kind campaign contribution.

Humphries paid for the work himself after The Associated Press questioned the legality of using campaign funds for the expense.

His campaign manager, Brian Schupper, said the candidate paid for the dental work personally "to avoid any further distraction." The Wisconsin Democratic Party also filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission over the expense.

Humphries' campaign finance filing submitted Tuesday showed that he accepted a $300 in-kind contribution for dental work from Mount Horeb dentist Amanda Hatch on Oct. 3. That was 10 days after Humphries registered as a candidate but a month before he publicly launched his campaign.

The dentist is a personal friend and offered to perform the teeth whitening because she said Humphries would need white teeth on the campaign trail, Schupper said. Humphries did not schedule the appointment to have his teeth whitened and offered to pay her at the time for the service, Schupper said.

Because the whitening was directly related to him being a candidate for office, the campaign believes it is allowed as an in-kind contribution under the law, Schupper said. State law forbids spending campaign contributions for personal benefit.

"The campaign's intention in reporting it was to be open and transparent," Schupper said. "To avoid any further distraction, John has reimbursed the donor for the expense personally."

It is unusual for dental work to be reported as an in-kind contribution. Typically, such campaign donations are typically for office space, printing costs or other expenses associated with running for office.

The Democratic Party's complaint alleged that the dental work amounted to an illegal corporate donation because the dentist office is a limited liability corporation. The Ethics Commission does not comment on pending complaints.

Humphries is challenging incumbent Superintendent Tony Evers. Former Beloit and Whitnall superintendent Lowell Holtz is also on the ballot and Racine high school teacher Rick Melcher is running as a write-in candidate.

The primary is Feb. 21 and the general election is April 4.



Associated Press