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Thompson's Plan To Increase School Control Rejected

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The education-reform plans of Gov. Tommy G. Thompson suffered a major blow when the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously struck down a law through which he had attempted to circumvent the authority of the elected state schools chief.

The 7-0 decision was handed down on March 29, almost immediately upon Mr. Thompson's return from the national summit he had organized to show the resolve of governors to tackle school-reform issues. Mr. Thompson had intended to use the governance-reorganization law to give himself a stronger hand in guiding Wisconsin's schools.

"It's not going to in any way delay or retard my momentum as far as moving ahead on educational issues," the governor said of the ruling. He added, however, that he will not push the governance matter further.

"It's over," he told reporters. "The supreme court has ruled on it, and I lost."

If Mr. Thompson lost, then officials at the state education department felt like big winners. Since the law was passed last year, John T. Benson, the elected state superintendent, has been on the defensive.

Mr. Benson proclaimed the ruling a triumph for Wisconsin's schools.

"It's a victory for the state's tradition of an independent, nonpartisan education policy," he said in a statement.

The decision came down the same day that the state high court deadlocked 3-3 in a case challenging another initiative of Mr. Thompson's: the expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program to include religious schools. (See story, page 5.)

The governance battle arose quickly after Republican lawmakers won control of the legislature in 1994. Gov. Thompson, a Republican, wanted to gut the responsibilities of Mr. Benson's position and appoint a new, Cabinet-level school commissioner who would answer to the governor.

A Bitter Debate

The elected superintendent would have been reduced to chairing a minor commission and visiting schools around the state to advocate educational improvement.

While the measure had enough votes to pass the legislature and become law, it had been hotly debated by school officials. The court's decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of educators from around the state. Mr. Thompson put off filling the Cabinet position until the courts spoke on the question.

The decision was a huge setback for Mr. Thompson, the governor's opponents said last week.

"This unanimous decision is a very powerful statement about a blatant power grab," said Jim Haney, a spokesman for the Attorney General James E. Doyle, a Democrat who backed Mr. Benson in the legal fight.

After Mr. Doyle refused to argue on behalf of the reorganization law, Mr. Thompson hired an outside lawyer.

Terry Craney, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers' union, said educators who had resented what they viewed as an effort to circumvent the state constitution--and an indication of the governor's intent to dictate school policy--felt vindicated. The union was a plaintiff in the case.

"We were pretty confident that if the case was decided on its merits, we would win," Mr. Craney said. "This should give Gov. Thompson pause."

The next question is how the legislature will treat the education department in light of the decision. At the same time that lawmakers passed the reorganization plan, they made deep cuts in the agency's two-year budget, which forced the elimination of 100 jobs.

"We continue to be a crippled agency," said Greg Doyle, a spokesman for Mr. Benson. "This department took cuts that were about seven times as deep as other state agencies, and those have not been restored."

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