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Conservatives eye Wisconsin state superintendent race

MADISON (AP) -- The officially nonpartisan race to be Wisconsin schools chief could be conservatives' best chance in years to defeat a Democratic-aligned state superintendent, one of the last statewide offices Republicans have been unable to control.

Conservatives who back the expansion of private school voucher programs are eyeing this spring's state superintendent race as a chance to knock off incumbent Tony Evers, a school choice critic whose base of support has been Democrats, public school advocates and teachers unions.

Evers will face school choice advocates John Humphries and Lowell Holtz on Feb. 21. Those three candidates filed nomination papers by Tuesday's deadline. The two highest vote-getters will advance to the April 4 general election.

The state superintendent race has traditionally been a low profile one. Turnout in the 2008 and 2012 state superintendent races was about 20 percent, which is less than a third of turnout for November's presidential election.

The race is also often overshadowed by contests for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but this year the state superintendent race is the only statewide one on the spring ballot. The candidates hope that translates into heightened awareness about the race to be the state's schools chief and to lead the Department of Public Instruction.

"I think it's a great thing," Humphries said Wednesday. "I think the race has deserved more attention for decades."

Both Humphries and Holtz are trying to position themselves as more conservative than Evers. They both support school choice programs, including allowing public school students to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private school.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature have championed school choice programs and expanded voucher availability statewide in recent years, despite the opposition of Evers and Democrats, who argue that the program drains needed money from public schools. The Legislature is expected to consider loosening enrollment caps this legislative session, while Walker has also promised to increase funding for public schools.

Evers has asked for $707 million more for public schools over the next two years.

He said Humphries and Holtz "will be positioning themselves as pro-voucher candidates and that may be want they want to do. I want to talk about kids and what's important about the state of Wisconsin."

Humphries has enlisted the support of Republican state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, chairman of the Assembly's Education Committee and a strong advocate for expansion of the voucher program. Humphries is also supported by Democratic Rep. Jason Fields, whose support for vouchers has angered fellow Democrats.

Holtz, who retired as Beloit superintendent in 2009, is also courting conservative voters.

"I'm probably the most conservative of the three of us," Holtz argued Wednesday, saying he believes in faith, family and community.

Holtz is running for a second time against Evers. He finished last in a five-person primary in 2008, when Evers was first elected. Evers, who spent eight years as deputy secretary after more than 25 years as a teacher and school administrator, has been state superintendent since 2009.

Humphries formerly worked as a consultant at the state Department of Public Instruction and resigned last month from his job as an administrator with the Dodgeville school district to focus on the race.

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