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State Journal: Voter choice on school choice

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The election campaign for Wisconsin's next state superintendent of public instruction is evolving into something of a referendum on the future of private-school-choice programs in the state.

The two candidates on the ballot next month, John Benson and Linda Cross, hold widely divergent views on the issue.

Mr. Benson, a school superintendent in Marshall and a former assistant state school superintendent, generally opposes choice plans that would allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools.

Mr. Benson said he believes private-school-choice plans involving religious schools violate the constitutional ban on state establishment of religion. And nonsectarian private schools would not welcome the regulation from the state that comes with accepting state funds, he suggested.

Mr. Benson added, however, that he does not dismiss outright the notion of parental choice, saying that he favors such plans if they are restricted to public schools.

Mr. Benson also said he does not oppose the state's existing choice program, under which about 600 low-income students from Milwaukee are attending private, nonsectarian schools at state expense.

"Milwaukee needs so much help I'm willing to accept any responsible proposal or idea that comes along that will help the children living in that school district,'' he said.

Ms. Cross, by contrast, endorses what she calls "wide open'' school choice.

"If parents feel simply shackled to a particular school ... they're going to have a bad attitude,'' said the high school English teacher from Hortonville.

"If they have that attitude themselves, they're going to send their kids to school with a negative attitude,'' she added.

Mr. Benson and Ms. Cross were the survivors of a crowded primary contest held last month. Nine candidates, more than for any state school superintendent's race in recent memory, competed in the nonpartisan balloting, in which Ms. Cross was one of only two candidates to favor private school choice.

Mr. Benson, who finished first in last month's voting, is being supported by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers' union and a powerful force in electoral politics. But Ms. Cross may pick up support in Milwaukee, which she carried in the primary.

The winner of the April 6 general election will succeed Herbert J. Grover, who has been an outspoken opponent of the Milwaukee school-choice experiment.--D.V.

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