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Thompson Aims To Rebuild Bipartisan Coalition, Spur Bold Action

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Denver

As Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin takes the reins of both the Education Commission of the States and the National Governors' Association this summer, he finds himself reminding policymakers of the groups' credentials.

The three-term Republican participated in the work the N.G.A. and the E.C.S. did over the last dozen years to help build support for education reform. But since the governors brought a set of national school goals into the political mainstream in the early 1990's, he says, the clout of the nonpartisan groups has waned.

As state officials seek their own diverse solutions to school problems and politicians in Washington focus on issues like welfare reform, a new wave of outreach is necessary to sell the organizations to many new state policymakers, Mr. Thompson said in an interview here last month.

The Governor was attending the annual conference of the E.C.S, a 30-year-old clearinghouse on state education policy.

The task of building a new consensus among state officials and winning a national spotlight for education issues will be a harder job than it was in the 1980's, Mr. Thompson acknowledged.

Against Partisanship

Many governors, particularly in the South, moved education reform to the top of their agendas during that period. In 1986, N.G.A. task forces held high-profile hearings on education and issued their recommendations in an influential report, "Time For Results." In the early 90's, the governors' organization played a key role in drafting national school goals and coming up with ways to monitor progress toward them.

The solidarity of the 1989 summit between President George Bush and the governors that led to the adoption of the goals may be gone, but Mr. Thompson said it is important to work against partisanship in education policy.

"I don't know if you can reassemble the group that put together the goals--governors, Congress, the President, and the Fortune 500. But we've gotten away from calling E.C.S. and N.G.A.," said Mr. Thompson, who will lead both groups over the next year.

"I am in a position to do something about that at a time that is very exciting for me," he said. "I think it's time to bring education back to the forefront."

Several participants at the E.C.S. meeting were intrigued by Governor Thompson's new role. Pointing out that his advocacy of school vouchers and his aggressive style go against the grain of a nonpartisan group that has steered clear of such controversial proposals, they were curious about how his presence will affect the organization.

Mr. Thompson said state policymakers must be persuaded that boldness--and less deference for sacred cows--are essential in tackling school problems. A lack of courage and creativity killed the Wisconsin education department, he asserted, adding that timid leadership is also stifling progress across the country.

A Call For Boldness

"As I looked at my own state, I saw an education department that was paralyzed to make a dramatic statement or call for change," he said. "I am fighting for change because the public is demanding it."

Mr. Thompson this summer signed a budget bill that moves the education department under the control of the Governor's office, and he will pick its new leader.

The bill will also expand Milwaukee's school-voucher plan from 1,500 students to 15,000 and allow vouchers to be used at religious schools--a move that is expected to test the constitutionality of state aid to sectarian schools. (See Education Week, 7/12/95.)

Mr. Thompson contended that he is not pushing a conservative political agenda, but merely trying to respond to the problems he sees in Milwaukee.

"In the rest of the state we don't have the same kind of problem that makes it something to consider," he said. "But it is just one of the things I have to do as an activist Governor to change the Milwaukee public schools."

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