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At a July 2022 primary debate, Michels said it was the “definition of insanity” to continually increase funding to public schools without better results. The campaign’s quote makes it seem as though he said it was insane to continue funding them at all, which is wrong.
However, as a proponent of school choice expansion, Michels could oversee changes that result in cuts to public education.
- School vouchers are already funded by cutting state aid to school districts. If Michels increases the number of students who use vouchers and doesn’t otherwise increase funding to public education, that will cut funding for public schools — unless he chooses to fund the expansion in another way.
There’s no doubt that education is a flashpoint in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former public school teacher who served as the state superintendent of public instruction, has long criticized Republican lawmakers for not bumping up funding for public schools and used his executive power to send millions of federal dollars their way in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Evers’ camp has fired back.
In an Oct. 6, 2022 email blast, the campaign wrote, "Tim Michels wants to defund public education — calling it ‘the definition of insanity’ to continue to fund public schools."
Is Evers right? Not exactly.
We’ll start with that quote. Did Michels say continuing to fund public schools was "the definition of insanity?"
It’s a twist of what was really said. Here’s what Michels said during a July 24, 2022 debate leading up to the August primary election, hosted by WTMJ-TV:
"The problem … is we’re already throwing so much money at education. That’s been the fix, if you will, for the last 10, or 20, or 30 years, more money on education, more money on education. And it’s not working — the definition of insanity."
The key word there is "more." Michels was calling it the definition of insanity to increase funding to public schools without better results — but the Evers campaign email makes it sound like he was saying it’s insane to continue funding them at all.
So the quote is a stretch of Michels’ position.
It would be as if saying someone who wanted to hold the line on spending for law enforcement was trying to defund the police. Indeed, critics have turned the phrase "defund the police" into a one-size-fits-all cudgel that ignores a variety of approaches. And using "defund" here invites leaders to make the same leap.
That said, looking more broadly, Michels’ education proposals could result in funding cuts to public education.
Michels wrote in an education policy blueprint that he supports universal school choice — that is, allowing all Wisconsin students to receive vouchers to attend a private or religious school if they choose. Wisconsin already has a handful of such voucher programs — including for Milwaukee, Racine, the rest of the state and students with disabilities — but there are income and other eligibility limits.
Currently, when students enroll in private schools using a private school voucher, the district they live in loses state aid, which instead pays for the vouchers.
Under that model — if Michels expands vouchers and does not otherwise increase funding to public schools as he has suggested he wouldn’t do — funding to public schools would be reduced.
(To be sure, those districts would also have fewer students, and not face the cost of educating those who wound up in private schools.)
Finally, we’ll also note that Michels could choose to fund voucher expansion differently, but he hasn’t said how he’ll pursue it.
Evers claimed that "Tim Michels wants to defund public education — calling it ‘the definition of insanity’ to continue to fund public schools."
The latter part of that statement misconstrues Michels’ quote, which criticized increased funding to public schools without getting better results, but did not imply he’d choke off funding altogether. Michels has not said he wants to completely defund public schools, and in using the loaded phrase Evers is aiming for a visceral response akin to the idea of defunding the police.
But as a proponent of expanding school choice, Michels could oversee cuts to public schools as a result of a major expansion of the private-school voucher program, especially if the funding system stays the way it is now.
Our definition of Mostly False is a statement that contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
That fits here.
Wisconsin Public Radio, "Gov. Tony Evers Criticizes GOP School Spending Plan, Says Full Budget Veto A Possibility," June 1, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Gov. Tony Evers directs $90 million more in federal funds to schools," Aug. 30, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Governor's race between Evers, Michels almost a referendum on what Wisconsin wants to see in education," Oct. 3, 2022
WTMJ4 News on YouTube, 2022 Wisconsin governor Republican primary debate: Full recording, accessed Oct. 14, 2022
Michels’ campaign website, The Tim Michels "I trust parents" education blueprint," accessed Oct. 14, 2022
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Private School Choice Vouchers, accessed Oct. 14, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Bill offering private school vouchers to all students could raise property taxes as much as $577M, DPI says," Feb. 22, 2022
Wisconsin Department of Administration, fiscal estimate of AB-0970, accessed Oct. 14, 2022
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