Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), left, and Tony Evers, his Democratic challenger in the 2018 November general election. Walker said Monday that if he's reelected, he'll increase state funding for schools to two-thirds of their total costs, echoing a pledge made in the summer by Evers. (Wisconsin State Journal/AP)

This was the beginning of a July news story in the Capital Times in Madison, Wis., about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign for a third term as a Republican governor:

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker started branding himself "the pro-education governor," one of his Democratic opponents said he "thought it was a joke from The Onion."

“I personally think that he lost more than his hair when he hit his head if he thinks he’s the education governor,” said Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn during an interview last month, referencing a story Walker has told about the origins of his bald spot. “It takes guts to say something like that.”

The reference is to Walker’s reputation as being hostile to traditional public schools — and that’s not great news for the governor in an election in which education is a top issue, according to polls. What’s more, Walker is running against Tony Evers, the Democratic state superintendent of education, who has been battling the governor’s education priorities for the past eight years. And the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that education is the “one issue” that both Walker and Evers are “hitting hard in their campaign ads.”

Though the election is still a few weeks away and anything can happen, Evers has been leading in recent polls, and Walker’s efforts to recast himself as the “education governor” don’t appear to have convinced his critics. His education “reform” agenda could be coming back to bite him at a time when interest in supporting public education in Wisconsin seems to be growing among many residents at the local level. What’s more, Evers, for his part, has been a teacher, principal and superintendent and is now in his third term as Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction. He has called for much more funding for public schools and has been critical of the state’s voucher programs, which use public money for private and religious school funding. He is seen as a threat by supporters of the “school choice” movement.

Early in his first term, Walker launched an assault on teachers unions and slashed funding for public schools. In 2011, he signed Act 10, a law that severely cut the power of public employee unions to collectively bargain — but he exempted the unions of police, firefighters and state troopers from those changes. It was clear that Act 10, which also cut benefits of public union employees, was aimed at teachers.

Walker also slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from public school funding early in his tenure. And though he raised funding later, he never made up the difference from what had been lost. And while doing this, he expanded the state’s voucher programs.

In 2015, he secretly tried to change the mission of the long-respected University of Wisconsin System — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code — by removing words in a budget proposal that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

The effort was to de-emphasize liberal arts and focus more on workplace skills, a view championed by conservatives who see many four-year colleges and universities as politically correct institutions that graduate too many students without practical job skills — but with liberal political views.

That same year he also removed from state law tenure protections for University of Wisconsin professors, a move that educators warned would hurt the school’s ability to retain and attract talented faculty.

A 2017 study by the Washington-based nonprofit Center for American Progress assessed the impact of Act 10 on education and educators and found that Wisconsin’s teachers lost pay as well as benefits. Here are some of the findings, from the center:

In the year immediately following the law’s passage, median compensation for Wisconsin teachers decreased by 8.2 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, with median benefits being cut by 18.6 percent and the median salary falling by 2.6 percent. Median salaries and benefits continued to fall during the next four years so that median compensation in the 2015-16 school year was 12.6 percent—or $10,843 dollars—lower than it was before the passage of Act 10.

The percentage of teachers who left the profession spiked to 10.5 percent after the 2010-11 school year, up from 6.4 percent in the year before Act 10 was implemented. Exit rates have remained higher than before, with 8.8 percent of teachers leaving after the 2015-16 school year— the most recent school year for which data are available.

The percentage of teachers with less than five years of experience increased from 19.6 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 24.1 percent in the 2015-16 school year.

Average teaching experience decreased from 14.6 years in the 2010-11 school year to 13.9 in the 2011-12 school year, which is where it remained in the 2015-16 school year.

Interdistrict moves — when a teacher leaves one Wisconsin district to teach at another the next school year — has increased from 1.3 percent before the passage of Act 10 to 3.4 percent at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Walker did nothing to endear himself to teachers since Act 10 became law. In 2015, after he began his unsuccessful bid to win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he compared protesting teachers to terrorists when asked how he would handle the Islamic State if he were to become president. He referred to teachers who, in 2011, protested Act 10 at the state Capitol, this way:

I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil. We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil but do not, do not, take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world. We need a leader with that kind of confidence.  If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

Meanwhile, in 2015, he signed a state budget that, among other things, slashed $250 million from the University of Wisconsin System and expanded the state’s voucher program that uses public funds to pay for tuition at private schools, including religious schools. It is worth noting that he signed into law a new voucher program for students with special needs that actually cuts legal protections for those same students.

That’s why Walker opponents found it somewhat rich when he began to run on his education record. He is doing this at a time when there is growing local interest in activism around supporting public education in the state, as explained in this post. As the author Jennifer Berkshire wrote recently:

In the place where the modern era of scorched-earth-style state politics began, local activism around public education may just transform Wisconsin’s political culture.

To understand the nature of the movement that is emerging in Wisconsin, it helps to define what it isn’t. There are no more huge demonstrations of the sort that engulfed the state Capitol building in Madison in 2011, in response to Walker’s infamous “budget repair bill.” After weeks of intense protests, the measure to mostly strip the state’s public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights passed as Act 10 of the legislature’s 2011-2012 session.

“We tried the big protests and they didn’t work,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “What you’re seeing now is that the battle has really gone local and grass roots.”

. . . “Go Public,” the network’s official slogan, which is emblazoned on the bright green shirts advocates wear when they testify or “bear witness” at official legislative events, is also a powerful rebuke to the right-wing governing ethos that has dominated Wisconsin since 2010: privatize everything.

Voters will soon decide whether Walker’s record is good enough to give him a third term, but if they decide against him, his education agenda will have played a big role.