State News

In a packed primary for governor, Democrats hope to stand out on higher education

After eight years of conservative reform to higher education under Gov. Scott Walker, his Democratic challengers hope a new vision for state universities will help unseat him.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger and Cameron Lane-Flehinger

In what is expected to be the most crowded primary ballot in recent memory, the ten Democratic candidates for governor are using every opportunity to distinguish themselves from the rest.

But when it comes to higher education policy, most of the candidates’ platforms center on one thing: being drastically different from those of Gov. Scott Walker.

“As a member of the Board of Regents, Tony [Evers] has seen firsthand the damage Scott Walker has inflicted on higher education in Wisconsin,” said Maggie Gau, the state superintendent’s campaign manager. “When other states began reinvesting in higher education, Wisconsin chose not to and it’s resulted in fewer classes and quality educators for our kids.”

Evers, who leads the Democratic pack due to the name recognition brought along by years in statewide office, centers his campaign on his work in public education — beginning his career as a teacher, Evers became a principal, then administrator, and finally moved up to the state’s head of public instruction.

Beyond undoing Walker era changes, like boosting UW System funding and replacing seats on the Board of Regents, Evers proposes halving the tuition of two-year state schools, supporting tenure and shared governance, as well as allowing graduates to refinance their student loans at a lower interest rate.

Many of his proposals echo platforms of Evers’ primary opponents, but others, like former state Rep. Kelda Roys, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and former state party Chairman Matt Flynn, support doing away with tuition for two-year UW schools altogether.

“To restore the excellence of public education in Wisconsin, we will fully fund public education, fully fund the UW System and WTCS, ensure that up to two years at Wisconsin's public universities, colleges, or technical schools will be tuition free for in-state residents, and reaffirm the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin,” Flynn told The Daily Cardinal.

In a field without a clear frontrunner, positions outside of the party consensus for cutting tuition, reforming student debt laws and increasing UW System funding are hard to come by.

But Mike McCabe, a longtime progressive activist, proposed a new idea to stick out in the crowd: legalizing marijuana, taxing it and using the funds to boost state investments in education.

“Wisconsin's goal should be nothing less than debt-free education for everyone in our state,” McCabe said. “[Our] current approach to higher education financing not only makes it harder for young people to find a path to the American Dream, but it's also bad for our state's economy.”

Firefighters’ union head Mahlon Mitchell said, if elected, he would “take action to create a first-of-its-kind independent agency,” the Wisconsin Student Loan Agency. Mitchell proposes allowing students to refinance loans at lower interest rates through the agency, or borrow one-time loans to pay off private ones and then be allowed to pay that debt back at a lower rate.

All candidates on the ballot, including Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, state Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire, Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik and attorney Josh Pade spoke at the Democratic convention in Oshkosh in early June with hopes of pulling away with party support.

“The University of Wisconsin is our crown jewel — and it's the economic engine of our state,” Roys said.

The tech entrepreneur emphasized the importance of “restoring state funding and autonomy to the UW System,” as well as recruiting and retaining educators, making two-year and technical colleges free and combating rising levels of student debt.

Roys was the surprise winner of the annual convention’s WisPolitics straw poll, with the support of almost 24 percent polled, trailed distantly by Mitchell and Evers’ 11 percent each. These results are drastically different from public polls, which show Evers out front with Soglin, who received only a single vote in the convention poll, a far away second.

The straw poll, while not scientifically significant, is often taken as an indication of where the support of dedicated party activists lies in the early months of the primary, though the growing pains of campaigning have yet to hit.

Who will represent the party and it’s agenda for higher education come November is still anyone’s guess.

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