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Governor's race: Clear contrasts on education
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MADISON (AP) - Some of the starkest differences in the platforms of Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke concern education policies such as Wisconsin's nascent statewide school voucher program and the Common Core academic standards.

Walker, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, faces Burke, a Madison school board member, on Nov. 4. The past three Marquette University Law School polls, including one released on Aug. 27, showed the race to be nearly even with only about 5 percent of registered voters undecided.

With two months to go until the election, both Burke and Walker are trying to influence those undecided voters by drawing sharp contrasts in how they would lead the state. Arguments on some issues, including the state's job-performance record under Walker, is nuanced and open to interpretation. They agree on other issues, including that public workers should continue to have to contribute more to their health care and pension benefits, which was a key provision of Walker's most divisive law, Act 10.

But Burke and Walker are much more at odds over the future of education policy.

Their views on education reveal deeper philosophical divides about the role of government, said Michael Apple, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who studies educational policies.

Walker strongly advocates for increasing funding for private education, such as schools in the voucher program, which is consistent with his belief in the need to limit the size and roll of government, Apple said.

That approach worries public schools, Apple said.

"They're looking over their shoulders constantly waiting for the next round of budget cuts," he said. "Many, many people are concerned that he will be giving money to his friends in the business sector and starving public institutions."

Burke's proposed policies would be more favorable for public schools and the University of Wisconsin System, but she needs to do more to get the message out to voters, Apple said.

"A lot will depend on whether Burke can mobilize minority communities, whether she can mobilize the base of support that may not have a huge amount of money but is very worried about the future of their children collectively," Apple said.

Walker supports aggressive expansion of the 2-year-old statewide private school voucher program and repeal of the Common Core standards that dictate what students should learn in English and math. Walker wants to create new standards, even though he says they may look a lot like those of Common Core.

Burke wants to roll back the voucher program and supports the implementation of the Common Core standards, which most schools have already put in place in advance of new tests next spring that are tied to them.

Walker last week said he would push for lifting caps on the state's voucher program, which allows students to attend private schools on the taxpayer's dime. Walker grew the program statewide after it had been only in Milwaukee and Racine, with enrollment caps of 500 students last year and 1,000 this year.

Walker hasn't said how much higher he wants the caps to increase, but he said he wants to focus on students in poverty and have the growth in stages so that it keeps up with demand. There were about 3,400 applicants for the 1,000 slots this year.

Burke said she wants to end the statewide program, arguing that there is no demonstrated need for it to grow beyond Milwaukee and Racine. She points to the fact that about three-quarters of the applicants for the program this year were already in private schools.

Proponents of the voucher program say it gives low-income students a chance to attend a private school that they otherwise couldn't afford. But opponents say private schools are largely unaccountable and the program diverts money that could be used to help improve public schools.

The difference between the candidates is clear, said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, a group that advocates for the voucher program. Who is governor will not only affect the future of possible enrollment growth, but also how large of a role the state Department of Public Instruction would play in administering the program, he said.

Burke points to a program she co-founded in Madison as the type of public-private partnership that can be more successful in improving student achievement than vouchers.

The program called AVID/TOPS partners the Madison school district with the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County to help low-income, minority students prepare and pay for college. She featured a high school graduate of the program in a recent campaign advertisement.

Both Walker and Burke are benefiting financially from those who support their views on education.

The statewide teachers union, Wisconsin Education Associated Council, gave $1.3 million to a liberal group that is running anti-Walker attack ads. And since 2009, Walker has received nearly $1.4 million from individuals and groups that support vouchers, according to a tally by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.