Kevin Nicholson, likely GOP candidate for governor, wants to close 'failing' schools, implement 'universal school choice'

Businessman Kevin Nicholson has joined the Republican field in the Wisconsin governor's race.

MADISON – Low-performing schools in Wisconsin would be forced to close under a plan to overhaul K-12 education put forward by Kevin Nicholson, a Republican who is expected to announce this week he is running for governor.

Nicholson, who was defeated in a Republican U.S. Senate primary in 2018 by former state Sen. Leah Vukmir of Brookfield, is proposing massive changes to the state's education landscape but did not answer questions about how he would accomplish his goals if elected.

In a GOP primary, Nicholson would face Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch who has broad support among elected Republican officials — including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester.

Vos said in an event Wednesday hosted by that Nicholson should not run.

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The consulting business owner and former U.S. Marine in the runup to his campaign announcement released some details of his plans for schools if elected, which includes "universal school choice," closing "failing schools" and making the state superintendent an appointed position rather than elected one.

The state superintendent, which oversees the state Department of Public Instruction, is a constitutional officer. Transforming the position into an appointed member of a Wisconsin governor's cabinet would require voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution after the proposal passed in two consecutive state legislative sessions.

Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers worked as state superintendent for nearly a decade before being elected governor.

Nicholson said in a Monday interview with conservative talk radio show host Vicki McKenna on WIBA that he wants DPI to put all curriculum plans used in the state's 422 school districts online "so that we can actually find out where we have violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Nicholson's comments referred to critical race theory, the academic philosophy that contends racism is systemic. Opposition to the theory has become a focus for Republicans across the country in recent months.

"We need to sue school districts that are continuing to do this and it is more complicated in Wisconsin to take these steps because our political class — Republicans included — have allowed this DPI monstrosity to continue all these years, so they just treated it like it's normal," Nicholson said.

In December, Evers vetoed a bill that would require school officials to post online information about a host of materials and educational activities used in every classroom. Under the bill, the information must be updated twice a school year. If school officials do not comply, the bill allows district residents to sue the school district.

Nicholson's wife, Jessie Nicholson, testified in favor of the bill at a public hearing in the state Capitol.

Evers said he was vetoing the bill because it did not include additional funding to accomplish the significant workload. He said at the time that under any new proposal with funding attached, schools "can better empower and facilitate parent engagement, which is essential for our kids' success."

Nicholson also suggested Monday he would seek to change the state's formula to fund schools and provide taxpayer-funded vouchers or savings accounts for all Wisconsin students. He said his proposals would ultimately lead to school closures, many in Milwaukee.

He said funding would follow students to the schools they choose, leading to school closures over time.

"Well-performing schools get more funding with more students, and ultimately that (market) really should work," Nicholson said. "Frankly, it's the only way we're ultimately going to deal with the failing schools that we see around our state, many of which are congregated in Milwaukee Public Schools."

Republican lawmakers over the last eight years have pursued plans that would require low-performing schools to close, be converted into charter schools, or move under new leadership. But those efforts to change the state's accountability system for schools failed — underscoring hurdles Nicholson faces in the state Legislature in pursuing his ideas.

In 2014 and 2015, the GOP-controlled Legislature pursued changes to the state's system to measure schools' effectiveness but the two houses could not agree on a strategy and ultimately abandoned the effort.

Also in 2015, lawmakers created a turnaround district within MPS for low-performing shcools but its leader resigned before it got off the ground citing an adversarial climate over the plan.

"It is now clear to me that as implementation of the law moves forward, the environment is not conducive to collaborative partnerships — something essential for positive things to happen in Milwaukee," turnaround district leader Demond Means, who now is superintendent of Wauwatosa School District, said at the time.

Contact Molly Beck at Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Kevin Nicholson wants to close 'failing' schools