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Wis. Court To Decide Balance of Policy Power

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Wisconsin educators hope the new year will bring resolution to a yearlong drama about who will have the starring role in shaping school policy: the governor or the elected state superintendent.

The dispute, now in the hands of the state supreme court, centers on a law passed last summer by the Republican-controlled legislature that would diminish the authority of the state education department. In turn, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, would be able to appoint a Cabinet secretary to oversee school-improvement efforts.

The power play has put John T. Benson, the elected schools superintendent, on the defensive. After Mr. Benson made his arguments before local newspaper editors, radio call-in shows, and school groups, his case went before the state's highest court.

At issue is a clause in the Wisconsin Constitution that created Mr. Benson's post. The provision stipulates that "the supervision of public instruction shall be vested in a state superintendent and such other officers as the legislature shall direct."

"What the court has to decide is which responsibilities lie with the state superintendent and which with the governor's secretary of education," said William R. Hittman, the superintendent of the 10,000-student Sheboygan district.

Is Post Irrelevant?

The rivalry between the governor and the superintendent came to a head after Republicans won control of both houses of the legislature in the 1994 elections. Mr. Thompson, a third-term governor, quickly used his enhanced clout to push the bill that would give him control over education policy.

In supporting the bill, which he signed in July, the governor has argued that the education department and its chief have become little more than a predictable voice that resists bold change and constantly pleads for more money.

When Mr. Thompson formed a task force to study education reforms earlier this month, he excluded Mr. Benson from the group, once again making his pitch that the superintendent is irrelevant.

"He hasn't come up with any new ideas," the governor said. "He has spent the last eight months going around the state trashing me."

Mr. Thompson has repeatedly argued that the condition of the state's schools leaves no option but to take risks.

He says the state needs more mavericks, and points to his backing of a controversial voucher program in Milwaukee that lets parents use state money to send their children to private schools. The program would be expanded to include religious schools under recent legislation that is under challenge in the state courts.

But Mr. Benson argues that the governor is more bark than bite. Responding to the snub of his omission from the new reform task force, he noted that Mr. Thompson had convened a 75-member task force that issued dozens of recommendations, few of which the governor supported and some of which he vetoed once they were passed by lawmakers.

A Rookie Fights Back

The dispute has left the governor fighting largely alone. The state attorney general, Democrat James E. Doyle, refused to defend the law weakening the state chief and instead argued for Mr. Benson before the supreme court. The governor retained his own lawyer to argue the case.

The suit challenging the law was brought by the state's teachers and school board members. It has also won the backing of several prominent conservatives who believe the proper way to decide the issue is through a constitutional amendment.

Many of the newspaper editorials that have weighed in on the issue agree.

"For the same reason that the secretary of natural resources ought to be out of the governor's reach, the state's education leader needs to be independent," wrote the Wausau Daily Herald earlier this year. "Don't make our vast resources--in nature and in schools--pawns to politics, with policies shifting wildly with every new governor."

Wisconsin, the only state without a state school board, has been served well by its governance system, said Greg Doyle, a spokesman for the state education department. And far from being a timid voice for reform, the department has instead been a voice that Mr. Thompson has not wanted to hear, he added.

"We have made numerous overtures on issues ranging from extending vouchers to school-finance inequities, but we've gotten no response at all," the spokes-man said.

An aide to Mr. Thompson said he will wait for word from the supreme court before naming a Cabinet appointee, although he has a green light from lawmakers to do so on Jan. 1. The court has not indicated when it will decide the issue.

Meanwhile, Mr. Benson, an even-tempered former teacher who ran on a nonpartisan ballot, will defy lawmakers and continue as an outspoken adversary of the veteran governor.

"The governor wants to emasculate the state superintendent," said Mr. Doyle, the education department spokesman.

And as both sides wait for a decision, some local officials see reason for optimism.

"It could be a positive thing," said Mr. Hittman of Sheboygan. "We could have two people who are advocates for education."

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