MADISON, Wis. (AP) — State superintendent Tony Evers and challenger Don Pridemore outlined their very different visions for Wisconsin's schools during a debate Wednesday, disagreeing over the governor's proposed expansion of the state's voucher system and proposed freeze in public school spending.
Pridemore, a Republican state representative, voiced support for Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal, which would expand the use of vouchers beyond Milwaukee and Racine while not allowing public school spending to increase. Evers, who is seeking a second term in the nonpartisan position heading the state Department of Public Instruction, opposes both proposals.
Evers drew applause when he said he wanted to raise spending by $225 per student.
"We can't be defunding our schools and increasing funding for private voucher schools," Evers told the crowd.
Pridemore said budgets remain tight, so schools should be prepared for no spending increases.
"We are in bad economic times," Pridemore said. "We're going to have to sharpen our pencils at least one more budget cycle."
About 300 school board members and administrators from around the state attended the debate. Members of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards held the meeting before going to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers.
Walker's proposals expanding the voucher program and freezing school spending are among the most hotly contested portions of his budget and have become a central focus of the state superintendent race. Walker's plan has already run into trouble among Senate Republican leaders, who have said they want to rework the voucher plan and allow school spending to go up.
Pridemore said he would support voucher schools until his "dying days."
"That may not be popular here today, but I think we need more competition in education," Pridemore said.
"If we're about best practices, I'm not quite sure we can say it's best practice to expand vouchers across the state of Wisconsin, especially in school districts that don't want them," he said.
In a rare moment of agreement, both Evers and Pridemore said they opposed another Walker proposal to create a separate school board to oversee charter schools. That plan has also been met with opposition among Senate Republicans.
Evers also spoke out against the Walker proposal to extend vouchers to special needs students. Pridemore was noncommittal, saying he wanted to learn more about Walker's plan.
"I don't necessarily know what problem the governor is trying to solve with this," Pridemore said.
Pridemore also supports allowing armed volunteers, such as retired police officers, to patrol schools to help keep them safe.
"A no-gun policy is an open door for criminals to come onto our campuses and wreak havoc," Pridemore said.
Evers said he didn't think having armed volunteers would make schools safer. Rather, it would risk turning schools into the "wild west." He said he wouldn't want his grandchildren going to schools with armed patrols.
Evers touted his 36 years' experience working in public education in Wisconsin, including the last four years as state superintendent. He emphasized his work on various initiatives with the business community and Republicans, including Walker, such as his work on the state's new accountability system and on bolstering career and technical education.
Pridemore, a state representative since 2004, has served as a member of the Assembly Education Committee and said he is running to give school districts more local control.
"More government, more policies, more mandates is not the answer," Pridemore said.
The election is April 2.