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State Chief's Race in Wisconsin Pits Teacher and Bureaucrat in Dogfight

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WAUKESHA, WIS.--On the second day of spring, residents of this Milwaukee-area city insist, it is not supposed to be snowing.

But then, by the conventional standards of education politics, Linda Cross probably should not be standing here on the auditorium stage at Waukesha North High School, telling some 150 stalwarts who have braved the weather why she wants to be Wisconsin's next superintendent of public instruction.

And John Benson, in his quest to be the state's chief school officer, was not supposed to have to be talking about prayer and censorship.

Politics having become as predictable as Mother Nature, however, the improbable has happened here in Wisconsin, where voters will elect their new schools chief next week.

In this match, which could change the course of education policy in the state, the velvet gloves have been tossed aside. The race between an "upstart teacher'' and a "bureaucrat,'' as some have dubbed the contenders, has developed into a political dogfight unlike anything seen before in the state.

"In the past, [the campaign for superintendent] was a duel between education-policy wonks,'' said Rep. Shirley Krug.

"We have never had a choice that was so clear before,'' added Rep. Polly Williams.

The outcome of the April 6 contest will be particularly significant because the winner will replace Herbert J. Grover, a 12-year veteran of the post who has clashed with the state's Republican Governor, Tommy G. Thompson, over Mr. Thompson's controversial education initiatives.

Both candidates have spent their adult lives as educators, but that is where the similarity ends.

Mr. Benson seems to have groomed himself for the role of state superintendent. He has been a teacher, a principal, a school board member, a district superintendent, and an assistant state superintendent. He is also the owner of a small business.

Ms. Cross, conversely, has little of the administrative experience that traditionally leads to the chief's post. She spent 23 years in the classroom as a high school English teacher, and is an adjunct professor at a branch of the state university. She too is a small-business owner.

What also distinguishes Ms. Cross is an action that she took nearly two decades ago, when she crossed a picket line in one of the most bitter teacher strikes in U.S. history. Labor has not forgotten the deed, which could be pivotal in this race.

"A scab is always a scab,'' said Rudy Kuzel, the president of United Auto Workers Local 72 in Kenosha.

Targeting the 'Bureaucrat'

Although the race looked at first like a shoo-in for Mr. Benson, Ms. Cross has turned her lack of administrative experience into an asset.

At the candidates' forum in Waukesha last week, for example, the pair was asked about the censorship of books. It was an issue that had arisen earlier in the campaign, when Ms. Cross reportedly said it would be acceptable to remove a book, including the works of Shakespeare, if a majority of parents opposed it.

In response to the question, Mr. Benson said he did not believe that parental-majority rule should prevail in the selection of literature. "I trust teachers and our locally elected school boards to select materials that are good for all children,'' he said.

Countered Ms. Cross: "You're sounding like a bureaucrat again.''

The strategy has worked on some voters. "I like it that she is not a bureaucrat,'' Linda Sarner, a parent, said after the forum.

But on others, the tactic backfires. "She's right, there is definitely a choice,'' said Jack Finger, a teacher. "One has experience and the other doesn't have experience.''

Out of Nowhere

Ms. Cross was not expected to survive the February primary. In a field of nine candidates, she finished second--substantially behind Mr. Benson, but well ahead of the others.

Since then, a poll commissioned by her campaign has showed her with a narrow lead, although more than half of the respondents were undecided.

"It was a shock to everyone. She just came out of nowhere,'' said Representative Williams, an African-American Democrat from Milwaukee who is supporting Ms. Cross.

Ms. Cross suggests there is a simple explanation for her appeal to voters. "People like my message to empower parents,'' she said.

She favors a wide-open school-choice system under which parents would receive vouchers to send their children to any public, private, or church-affiliated school.

Most of her campaign message is directed at parents. "My policy has always been to respect the parents,'' she said at the candidate forum. "The kids belong to them.''

Others do not see her appeal in quite so simple terms. They point to her ties to the Republican Party-- she is a former county chairwoman --and her association with Ms. Williams, whose sponsorship of the state's private-school-voucher program for low-income Milwaukee students has won her a national following among choice advocates and conservative activists.

"The combination ... just caught on and those votes were there,'' said Rep. Lary Swoboda, a Democrat who trailed Ms. Cross in the primary.

"I've never seen [partisanship] this prominent in an election,'' Mr. Swoboda continued.

Most Republicans are lining up behind Ms. Cross, while Democrats are supporting Mr. Benson.

Although Governor Thompson has promised to stay neutral, his wife is on Ms. Cross's campaign committee.

On the Defensive

Whatever its source, her appeal has put Mr. Benson on the defensive.

"I didn't anticipate that it would be the way that it is in many respects, including the discussion of the issues,'' Mr. Benson acknowledged.

"The issues are primarily her issues that the media are dealing with, and I find myself talking about them more than I want to,'' he added.

In addition to school choice and parental control, Ms. Cross's campaign literature cites imposing a freeze on the education department and district administrators, waiving state mandates, freezing property-tax rates, revising the state's mediation-arbitration law, and expanding school-to-work initiatives.

But it has been her pronouncements on the campaign trail that have captured the spotlight.

Ms. Cross has been quoted in the media, for instance, championing school prayer and military-style bootcamps for at-risk students.

She also reportedly has suggested that a majority of parents should be able to decide if such sensitive topics as AIDS will be taught in a classroom.

Her remarks about book selection have set off alarms among some of her fellow English teachers.

John Price, the president of the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English, said a majority-rule process would be "a very clear violation'' of what the organization stands for. Ms. Cross is the organization's archivist.

"It's beyond me to imagine that an English teacher would suggest that,'' said Mr. Price, who wrote letters to newspapers across the state expressing his concern.

In an interview, however, Ms. Cross intimated that many of her views have been misconstrued.

She traces her boot-camp idea to alternative classes her district first offered this year for students who need to make up credits.

"Many of the kids are working well in the new school but some are still falling through the cracks,'' said Ms. Cross. "I suggested what a lot of the kids need is discipline that [recruits] used to get in the military to help them become responsible citizens.''

As for parent referendums on books and human-development curriculum, she said, she would honor individual parents' decisions but would not permit them to make decisions for classes as a whole.

At the forum in Waukesha, Ms. Cross said that as a teacher she does not concern herself with prayer. "As long as we're giving tests, there will be prayer in school,'' she joked.

But Mr. Benson charged that his opponent's answer differed from one she had given at an earlier joint appearance before the Rotary Club, where, he said, she had expressed support for school prayer.

The next day, both The Milwaukee Journal and The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that Ms. Cross had softened her responses in Waukesha, compared with earlier appearances.

None of her ideas is etched in stone, she said, adding that she is floating them because education needs to consider innovative measures.

But those ideas also eat up a big chunk of the time that Mr. Benson would like to spend talking about the issues he wants to promote.

The Political Tour

So he finds himself on the hustings, trying to dilute Ms. Cross's appeal and shore up his own support.

One day, Mr. Benson's campaign takes him to Kenosha, a city of 80,000 just north of the Illinois border.

The first stop is Andy's Restaurant, a diner, where he works the crowd along with Sen. Joseph F. Andrea.

"The race is not on everyone's tongue,'' Mr. Andrea concedes as he plots strategy for the day.

The senator leads Mr. Benson around the eatery, introducing him to the customers.

"When you vote for Barca, vote for him,'' says Mr. Andrea, slipping a Benson handbill to a customer.

Peter W. Barca is one of the Democrats seeking the U.S. House seat vacated by Les Aspin when he became Secretary of Defense.

The next stop is an informal reception at Gateway Technical College, where Mr. Benson focuses on one of his favorite themes, enhancing technical preparation.

"You are a big part of our future,'' he tells faculty and staff. "More of our kids need to come to you than to our state university system in the future.''

The whirlwind tour of Kenosha also takes Mr. Benson to the Spanish Community Center, the county courthouse, a senior-citizens' center, the offices of the local daily and a labor newspaper, an elementary school, and a radio call-in show.

Again, he gets to talk about some of the issues he cares most about.

Mr. Benson says he bases his vision for education on the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.

"It's corny but I believe in it--428 [the number of school districts in the state] villages committed to educating our children. That's my theme.''

He has put it to work in Marshall, a town of 2,329 near Madison where he currently serves as school superintendent. Under his leadership, the district has built a new school for pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade, started a P.T.A. for parents of children up to age 4, established parenting classes and a mentoring program, and was selected as an RJR-Nabisco 21st Century School.

While Mr. Benson emphasizes the village concept, politicians in the entourage say his biggest impact will be at U.A.W. Local 72, for a wholly different reason.

"The union vote is key,'' said Rep. Robert Wirch. "Get them out for the election.''

Indeed, turnout is often the decisive factor in off-year elections such as next week's contest. In addition to the Congressional primary in Mr. Aspin's district, voters will be drawn to the polls to decide three Senate races and a statewide referendum on gambling.

Union Role

Producing a major effort by organized labor for Mr. Benson and against Ms. Cross will not take much prodding.

Next week marks the 19th anniversary of the mass firing of Hortonville teachers, who had walked out in a salary protest.

A substitute teacher at the time, Ms. Cross crossed the picket line four times a day, often accompanied by sheriff's deputies in riot gear.

Ms. Cross says she did so for her students, not because she was anti-union or anti-labor.

"The leadership of the union just won't let it die,'' she lamented.

Until all of the strike-breaking teachers are gone, the Wisconsin Education Association Council has refused to recognize the local in Hortonville, a town of 2,029 southwest of Green Bay.

WEAC, along with most education groups, has endorsed Mr. Benson.

Richard Collins, the president of WEAC, said the union's stance was based on support for Mr. Benson, rather than opposition to Ms. Cross.

"He has a vision of how the schools ought to operate as we move into the 21st century,'' said Mr. Collins.

He pointed out that the union endorsed Mr. Benson in the primary, long before he was campaigning one-on-one against Ms. Cross.

But Ms. Cross has tried to use the endorsement of Mr. Benson by WEAC, a powerful political force in the state with a reputation for electoral hardball, to her advantage. During the primary, she called herself the candidate WEAC loves to hate.

While she has since toned down the anti-union rhetoric, she continues to charge that her opponent is in the union's pocket.

The union independently spent $54,000 on Mr. Benson's behalf during the primary.

"He is going to be beholden to them in a huge way,'' she argued.

Mr. Benson said that while he was honored to have the WEAC endorsement, he will not allow the union or any other group to call the shots.

Meanwhile, a group called Citizens for Change has announced plans to raise money for Ms. Cross and three G.O.P. Senate candidates.

Some of her supporters have made voters leery. "Cross worries me. I think she is a Christian fundamentalist,'' said Terry Grabow, a parent who attended the Waukesha forum.

"I'm not a radical person,'' Ms. Cross responded. "I'm a teacher who respects the kids and their parents.''

Representative Krug, meanwhile, said she is so irritated by the race that she will push to make the superintendency an appointed post.

"If we were looking at the appointment process,'' she said, "neither one of those people would be in line for the superintendent of public instruction.''

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