Primary Sets Up Rematch for Wis. Schools Chief

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For Wisconsin's schools chief, it's deja vu as he makes the final push in his bid to keep his job.

In an encore of the state superintendent's race of four years ago, incumbent John T. Benson and longtime teacher Linda Cross finished first and second in last week's nonpartisan primary. The winner will be decided in the state's April 1 general election.

"I have been waiting four long years for this rematch," Ms. Cross said last week.

Bolstered by a hefty campaign chest and a nod from the teachers' union, Mr. Benson won 44 percent of the vote in the seven-candidate field. Ms. Cross garnered 27 percent.

"I'm delighted with the outcome, and I think it's a response to our record of achievements," Mr. Benson said. "The main difference between me and my opponent is that I have a clear vision for the future."

More specifically, the biggest distinction between the two candidates--and the main difference between them in their first go-round--is on religious school choice. Mr. Benson favors public school choice but opposes taxpayers' footing the bill for students to attend religious schools, saying it would be unconstitutional. Ms. Cross strongly advocates religious school vouchers.

"We need to empower our parents to make choices," Ms. Cross said. "I also believe competition is good for all of us."

Her stance, also championed by Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, plays well among the state's large Roman Catholic population, but it helped earn her the opposition of the 80,000-member state teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

"We were pleased to see John come out with a margin of victory even stronger than it was four years ago," union President Terry Craney said last week. "But Linda Cross is a formidable opponent with the backing of the far right in the state because of her position on religious school vouchers."

An Old Tug of War

Ms. Cross maintains that the union is holding a grudge against her decision 24 years ago to cross the picket line at Hortonville High School. She still works there as an English teacher.

But Mr. Craney said the union supports Mr. Benson's positions on improving public education--including the establishment of high academic standards--and maintaining a "zero tolerance" policy on drugs and weapons in schools.

The setting of school standards has turned into a bitter tug of war between Mr. Benson, who heads the state education department, and Gov. Thompson. After Mr. Benson's staff came up with voluntary standards for students in grades 4, 8, and 12, the governor not only showered the plan with criticism but also suggested a whole new set of benchmarks in his recent State of the State Address. The Council on Model Academic Standards, appointed by Mr. Thompson, is charged with coming up with a final set of standards by September.

The animosity between Mr. Benson and Gov. Thompson dates to 1994, when the governor pushed a bill into law that would give him control over education policy and eliminate Mr. Benson's position. But the state supreme court nullified the law last year.

This friction between the governor and the schools chief isn't lost on Ms. Cross, who said she would be a more effective superintendent by getting along with the governor and lawmakers.

Mr. Benson "has lost 80 percent of his time defending his department and his job," she said. "That is not going to happen on my watch."

Ms. Cross faces an uphill battle, however, in terms of campaign finances. Her treasurer says she has about $3,000 left in the bank, while Mr. Benson's staff says he has more than $7,000. Backed mostly by teachers' groups and other unions, Mr. Benson spent at least $63,000 leading up to the primary, far more than his six challengers combined, according to published reports.

State Rep. Gregg Underheim, an Oshkosh Republican who came in a distant third in the primary, said he would now endorse Ms. Cross. The fourth-place finisher, AT&T Corp. executive James L. Leonhart of Madison, said last week that he definitely would not support Ms. Cross but had not decided whether to endorse Mr. Benson.

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