MADISON (AP) — Republican state Rep. Don Pridemore launched his campaign to become Wisconsin's top education leader on Monday, saying he would bring a conservative approach to the job while refusing to talk specifically about what policies he would push.
Pridemore is taking on incumbent Tony Evers, who has held the nonpartisan job of secretary of the Department of Public Instruction since 2009. The election is April 2, and there will be a Feb. 19 primary if three or more people run.
Evers said he looked forward to contrasting his record with Pridemore's.
"All I know is I've been out front on education for 36 years," said Evers, a former teacher, principal, district superintendent and deputy state superintendent. "I'm believing that he has not."
Pridemore, 66, has been a member of the Assembly for eight years and won re-election in November with no opposition. Prior to that he worked as an electronics research technician, design engineer and project engineer.
Pridemore said Republican Gov. Scott Walker would have a friend in the office if he were elected, even though the post is nonpartisan. Walker has said he may not endorse anyone in the race.
"I have a common sense, conservative approach," Pridemore said, standing at a podium that his supporters erected, along with an American and Wisconsin state flag, on the sidewalk outside of the state elections board offices. Pridemore began his brief news conference by saying the pledge of allegiance.
He refused to answer questions about education policy, specifically whether as secretary of the Department of Public Instruction he would advocate for expanding voucher schools statewide. Vouchers, which provide taxpayer money for parents to send their children to private schools, are currently allowed in Milwaukee and Racine and in Milwaukee County.
Pridemore said the most important reason to have public education is to prepare students for a job, but that a connection between schools and employers has been lost. Without providing details, he also called for reducing education bureaucracy, increasing parental involvement, restoring discipline in the classroom and eliminating what he called "burdensome paperwork requirements."
Pridemore said he will provide more details about specific policies he would back as DPI secretary during his campaign.
However, powers of the secretary are limited. Any decisions about expanding voucher schools, or altering the school aid formula, or changing the amount of money schools get and what it can be used for must be made by the Legislature. The DPI secretary can advocate for changes in those areas but cannot make them unilaterally.
Evers has worked closely with Walker on a number of reforms, including starting new early literacy screening for kindergarten students and creating a program that applies experience in the private sector toward college course credit. But he also strongly opposed Walker's bill last year that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for teachers and most public workers.
Evers, 60, was supported in the 2009 race by the statewide teachers union, Wisconsin State Education Association. Pridemore said Evers' ability to lead is compromised by that support.
"There's only so much someone can do when they're heavily supported by the teachers' union," he said. "Today is the day we recognize that the only special interest that matters is the children of Wisconsin."
A spokeswoman for WEAC declined to address Pridemore's comments, saying the union hasn't decided yet who it would back in the race.
Evers dismissed the criticism, saying he was proud to have the backers of teachers, school administrators and many others in his 2009 win.
Pridemore is one of the more conservative members of the Assembly, supporting tougher immigration laws and legalizing carrying concealed weapons without a permit.
Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, citing Pridemore's immigration bill and voting for nearly $2 billion in education funding cuts last year, said "Pridemore may have the worst resume on education and children that Wisconsin has ever seen."
Evers has said accomplishments during his first term include adoption and implementation of new state standards, the creation of additional dual enrollment opportunities and the creation of a new assessment system to replace the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam.
Evers also touted his implementation of a replacement for the federal No Child Left Behind law and creation of a new teacher evaluation system.
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