MADISON — It’s well known Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Education Association Council are as thick as thieves. But new documents obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight through an open records request show the outsized influence the state’s largest teachers union has on a Democrat politician it has showered with campaign cash and votes.
WEAC in particular applied a lot of pressure on Evers and his administration in its quest to shut down in-person learning over the past two-plus years of the pandemic. The governor — or his handlers — had enough sense to know that doing so would be a political suicide mission. But Evers never seemed to miss a chance to kiss up to one of his more faithful liberal donors and critical allies, or provide WEAC with privileged information.
Emails and other communications found:
— In August 2020, WEAC was alerted that the governor’s office was working on a strategy relating to opening schools following the first summer of the pandemic. WEAC demanded being part of the conversation.
— On several occasions, Evers’ team alerted the teachers union to forthcoming vetoes. He also sought WEAC’s priorities for the state budget.
— Evers took time out of his “busy schedule” to call WEAC and thank the union for its “ongoing support throughout these unprecedented times.”
Saying thank you
Just as the Biden administration allowed a national teachers union to write COVID-19 guidelines that led to extended school closures during the pandemic, Evers and his team took counsel from WEAC as the governor dealt with the reopening of schools for the 2020 fall semester.
“We at WEAC are getting pressure from the Senate Democrats to take a position on these bills from the School Administrators Alliance. We have been told the Senate Dems are working with the Governor’s office on a strategy relating to opening of schools,” wrote WEAC lobbyist Jack O’Meara in an Aug. 21, 2020 email to Evers’ office.
“We would like to be part of that discussion,” O’Meara added.
The records Evers’ office released to Wisconsin Spotlight do not include a response to O’Meara, but a Sept. 30 email from Evers’ scheduling director to WEAC officials shows how important the teachers union is to the Democrat.
“Governor Tony Evers is inviting you to a 30 minute call tomorrow, Thursday, Oct. 1, from 5:15pm — 5:45 pm to give an update on the state’s COVID-19 status and to thank you for your ongoing support throughout these unprecedented times,” the email invitation to WEAC and other labor leaders states.
The teachers union kept pushing the Evers administration to close Wisconsin’s pre-K-12 public schools. In a Nov. 13, 2020 letter to Andrea Palm, who was then secretary-designee of the Department of Health Services, WEAC scolded the agency for sending a “perilous mixed message” in its position on schools. The union flattered Palm for “wisely” asserting that, “We should not be having contact with other human beings we do not live with,” but insisted keeping schools open was dangerous.
“As long as school districts remain open for in-person instruction, bringing together dozens of students and staff from different households in confined spaces for extended periods of time, and as long as unmasked high school football players are seen huddling together and high-fiving one another on the evening news, citizens will not take the pandemic seriously,” the letter to DHS states.
WEAC demanded that Palm had the authority to close schools “to prevent the spread of communicable diseases” without having to go through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The state’s teachers union and its affiliates in liberal enclaves like Madison and Milwaukee continued to push for all remote learning even as the science showed shuttering schools was having a profound negative impact on students.
WEAC in its letter to DHS blamed Republicans in the Legislature for contesting the Evers’ administration’s illegal lockdown orders. If it hadn’t been for the meddling Legislature and the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Evers administration would have gotten away with the extended suspension of civil liberties.
“WEAC would not need to call upon you to take this action had the Republican Legislature and Wisconsin Supreme Court not thwarted your good faith efforts and those of Governor Evers to contain the virus,” the letter states. “However, we are now in a situation where the virus is out of control and DHS must use any remaining tool it has to curb its spread.”
The teachers union implored DHS to adopt the Harvard Global Health Institute plan dubbed, Path to Zero & Schools: Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces. Even the plan’s co-author acknowledged the goal of zero COVID cases in schools was unrealistic.
The Harvard strategy is broken down into three phases, red, yellow, and green. Red is full lockdown. Green is full open. A map produced by the plan’s creators in July 2020, when COVID cases were low compared to the surging numbers in November and December of that yea,r showed relatively sparse areas of green.
In December 2020, WEAC was still urging Evers to close schools.
“Close schools for in-person instruction immediately following winter break through Jan. 15, 2021,” WEAC President Ronald “Duff” Martin and Bob Baxter, WEAC’s executive director, demanded in a Dec. 11, 2020 letter to the governor. The union was disappointed with the administration’s decision not to establish “gating criteria” for schools to close and open.
“When left to their own devices, many school districts are making decisions based on political pressure, not safety, and not science,” the letter states.
Evers would continue to disappoint his critical ally on the school closure front. After he ordered districts to close their school buildings for the remainder of the school year in April 2020, Evers heard an earful from upset parents who saw the failures of remote education play out on their children’s computer screens. He changed his position, saying operational decisions should be left to individual school districts.
But the governor paid back his big-time donors in myriad other ways. He gave WEAC prior notice on bills he planned to veto — bills the teachers union wanted killed.
“Just a heads-up the Governor will be vetoing Assembly Bill 59 tomorrow. This is embargoed until it is public,” Jamie Kuhn, Evers’ Outreach director, wrote in a June 17, 2021 email to Baxter, WEAC’s executive director.
Assembly Bill 59 would have dramatically increased access to school choice in Wisconsin and prohibited resident school districts from denying open enrolment requests into non-resident districts.
“The governor is vetoing the following bill today you registered in opposition to: SB 474/AB 446 relating to reading readiness assessments,” Kuhn told Baxter in an email on Nov. 5, 2021.
Kuhn was incorrect on the Senate Bill number, but AB 446 would have increased the number of times students are screened for reading problems and required schools to develop intervention plans for students struggling with reading.
Kuhn tipped off Baxter again about a month later, notifying the WEAC executive the governor was soon to veto Senate Bill 463. The bill would have required school boards to make information about learning materials and educational activities used for student instruction available to the public. It was a measure crafted amid growing concern about radical left indoctrination in public schools.
That same month, the teachers union sent a letter to Evers asserting WEAC is a “key partner to the Department of Public Instruction and the Office of the Governor on educational issues” and they should “continue to be involved in deliberations and decision-making as it relates to Wisconsin’s Public Schools, particularly in this time of crisis.”
WEAC had no reason to worry. Evers, who led DPI before becoming governor, has had a politically symbiotic relationship with the union for years — as a Nov. 18, 2020 email to WEAC President Duff Martin underscores.
“Governor Evers is looking to hear what WEAC would like to see included in the next budget,” wrote Brandi Kochera, scheduling director for Evers’ office. She wanted to set up a meeting a half-hour meeting between Martin and the governor.
“Prior to the meeting, it would be hopeful [sic] if you could send me that top five budget priorities for WEAC for the governor to reference when crafting the budget,” Kochera added.
It is interesting to note that Evers’ office has been in more frequent contact with the state’s largest teachers union than the governor was with his own incompetent Department of Workforce Development secretary, who was ultimately fired following the agency’s failure to process unemployment insurance claims.