Tony Evers, Lowell Holtz face off to be top Wisconsin education official

MADISON — Incumbent state Superintendent Tony Evers and challenger Lowell Holtz face off Tuesday in the only statewide race on the spring election ballot as they vie to become Wisconsin's top education official.

Evers is running for a third term. Holtz, the former superintendent in Whitnall and Beloit, is attempting to unseat him after finishing a distant second in the February primary and raising less than half as much money as Evers.

The race is officially nonpartisan, but Evers is backed by Democrats and state and national teachers' unions, while Holtz has support from Republicans and conservative groups.

Dave Rymaszewski, 64, of West Allis said he voted for Evers on the advice of friends of who were teachers in the Milwaukee school district.

"Holtz is another one of those conservative nut wing cases and we don't want him as state superintendent," Rymaszewski said.

Retired insurance executive Steve Haroldson, 70, of Mount Horeb said he sees Holtz as the only one of the two ready to make drastic changes to address racial achievement gaps.

"Evers has been in there long enough," Haroldson said. "He's too much aligned with the teachers' union to consider the types of changes necessary to improve minorities' performance."

Evers was targeted by some Republicans as he's the only Democratic-leaning statewide official in a significant office. But Evers has also upset some liberals by working closely with Gov. Scott Walker at times, even though Evers did sign the petition to recall Walker from office six years ago.

The winner of Tuesday's election will run the state Department of Public Instruction, which administers K-12 education policy, curriculum and programs, as well as state and federal aid for all of Wisconsin's 424 public school districts.

Evers and Holtz have disagreed on almost every major issue that's come up in the campaign. Evers opposes expanding the private school choice program and supports Common Core academic standards, increasing funding for public schools and addressing teacher shortages across the state.

Holtz wants to repeal Common Core standards and create a new test not linked to them and supports the choice program.

Both candidates support Walker's budget sending $650 million more to schools. But they disagree on Walker's requirement that the bulk of that money be tied to schools that require employees to pay at least 12 percent of their health care costs. Evers opposes the provision, while Holtz backs it.

Holtz focused his campaign on the charge that Evers hasn't done enough to close Wisconsin's worst-in-the-nation achievement gap. Evers argues some improvements have been made, while more work needs to be done.

Holtz has had to deal with questions about a conversation he had with a former candidate in the race who alleged that he offered him a six-figure state job, a driver and broad authority to take over the state's five largest districts if he dropped his candidacy.

Holtz denied that he offered a bribe and the state Elections Commission said he had not broken the law. A liberal advocacy group also asked district attorneys to investigate campaign-related emails Holtz sent on his Whitnall school account while he still worked for the district.