Truth and schools: the race for state school superintendent

Incumbent state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers will defend his seat in the April 4 election against voucher advocate Lowell Holtz.
Incumbent state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers will defend his seat in the April 4 election against voucher advocate Lowell Holtz.

Wisconsin’s progress -- or lack thereof -- on educating public school students has dominated the debate in the campaign for state superintendent of public instruction.

We’ve looked at numerous items on the Truth-O-Meter and Flip-O-Meter in advance of the April 4, 2017 election.

Here’s a recap of our items on the incumbent Tony Evers, his general-election challenger Lowell Holtz -- plus some related ones from John Humphries, who didn’t make it past the February primary election.

Graduation rates

Evers claimed on Facebook that "Wisconsin’s graduation rates have grown to over 90 percent" since he became state school superintendent in 2009.

Mostly False, we found.

By the traditional measure -- graduation in four years -- Wisconsin’s rate is one of the best in America, but still below 90 percent using. Using another approach, it topped that mark before Evers even took office. The graduation rate for students who take longer than four years provided an element of truth to the claim.

Holtz hit on this issue as well. He touted his record as the former superintendent of the Beloit school district, saying, "Our minority graduation rate went from levels below Milwaukee and Madison, to above 80 percent."

Mostly True, we found.

Rates rose significantly in Beloit during Holtz’s tenure, and topped 80 percent both for black students and Hispanic students. But the picture upon his arrival was not quite as bleak as Holtz claimed.

Holtz most recently was superintendent in the Whitnall district in suburban Milwaukee.

Readiness for college

Holtz said that about a third of Wisconsin’s high schools "are missing the mark of graduating young adults who are college ready," a "pass rate of 66.6 percent."

Mostly False, we found.

Holtz cites legitimate data and makes fair use of Evers’ own words to judge the incumbent’s record. But the limits of the data, and Holtz’s blanket characterization of 175 schools as failing on preparing students for college, create significant misperceptions.

Reading scores

Humphries said Wisconsin has "dropped from a top 10 state in elementary reading to 30th in the nation" under Evers.

Mostly False, we said.

The drop is real, by an oft-cited ranking from a credible source, but the latest rank is 25th, not 30th.

And Facebook readers who aren’t deeply familiar with Evers' career might assume from Humphries claim that the decline happened while Evers was state superintendent. Evers was a top staffer for much of that time, but most of the decline came before he took over.

Common Core standards

We gave both Holtz and Humphries a Full Flop rating for changing their position on the academic standards adopted by most Wisconsin school districts. Evers supported the standards.

When he was a superintendent, Holtz praised the standards, but as a candidate he opposed them, saying they didn’t work out. We found a similar story regarding Humphries views.