School & District Management

Burmaster Retains Wisconsin State Chief Post

By Caroline Hendrie — April 12, 2005 3 min read

Wisconsin’s state schools chief cruised to a second four-year term last week, turning away a challenger who had sought to make an issue of the incumbent’s close ties to the main state teachers’ union.

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Elizabeth A. Burmaster, a former high school principal, garnered roughly 62 percent of the vote to defeat a state representative making his second bid for the post of state superintendent of public instruction.

Ms. Burmaster, a close ally of Democratic Gov. James E. Doyle, had sparred with Rep. Gregg Underheim, a Republican, over school finance and their respective education credentials, among other issues. She portrayed him as a “career politician,” while he painted her as far too cozy with the state’s dominant teachers’ union.

After her victory in the nonpartisan April 5 election, Ms. Burmaster said that “the top priority of my administration will continue to be ensuring quality education for every child by investing in what we know works.”

She cited a state program that helps reduce class sizes in the early grades, kindergarten for 4-year-olds, and efforts to ensure strong teaching and leadership.

In her campaign, the incumbent urged the Republican-controlled legislature to support Gov. Doyle’s spending plan for the coming two fiscal years, saying it balances schools’ needs for resources with homeowners’ need for relief from rising property taxes.

The budget calls for the state to come close to paying two-thirds of the cost of public education, a threshold it traditionally had met before a budget crisis two years ago led to a cutback.

Mr. Underheim questioned Ms. Burmaster’s approach to school finance. “I believe that quality is not determined by how much we spend,” the 54-year-old legislator said after his defeat last week.

He stressed his view that the state needs to deliver instruction more economically, in part by making better use of advances in technology that have enhanced the opportunities for distance learning. And he suggested that shifting more of the cost of public schooling to the state was not a long-term solution.

“The premise is that we will spend up on the state side and control property taxes on the local side,” he said. “In the long run, that just doesn’t work.”

Union Support at Issue

Mr. Underheim, who has represented Oshkosh in the Assembly since 1987, contended that Ms. Burmaster had allowed teachers’ unions to hold far too much sway over education policy under her administration.

He attributed his defeat mainly to the fact that he was vastly outspent, largely because of the strong financial backing that Ms. Burmaster received from school employees’ unions, particularly the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

Numerous donations from local teachers’ unions around the state helped Ms. Burmaster accumulate a campaign war chest far larger than her challenger’s. As of March 21, she had reported raising more than $286,000, compared with less than $64,000 for Mr. Underheim.

In addition, the WEAC had committed an additional $338,000 as of that date to advocate independently for Ms. Burmaster’s re-election, a sum that approached the roughly $350,000 that the two candidates combined had raised for their campaigns.

Ms. Burmaster, 50, rejected charges that she did the union’s bidding, attributing her endorsement by school labor groups to her decades of experience as an educator. “The real choice was between a career educator, myself … and a career politician,” she said. “So of course the teachers’ union endorsed the career educator.”

W. Charles Read, the dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said “the underlying issue” in the campaign “was the extent of state support for the public schools,” particularly whether the state would reinstate the two-thirds funding commitment.

Ms. Burmaster’s re-election, he said, “is an affirmation that people would like to move back closer to this commitment.”

“The real choice was between a career educator, myself … and a career politician. So of course the teachers’ union endorsed the career educator.”

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