School Choice & Charters

Union-Backed Wis. Schools Chief Wins Second Term

By Beth Reinhard — April 09, 1997 2 min read

Wisconsin state Superintendent John T. Benson won a second term last week after a lively campaign that pitted school unions against supporters of religious school vouchers and the governor, whose wife co-chaired opponent Linda Cross’ campaign.

Buoyed by superior fund raising, Mr. Benson received 55 percent of the vote, 2 percentage points more than in his race against Ms. Cross four years ago.

“We had a good term with a lot of accomplishments, and we had broad-based support,” said Mr. Benson, a former teacher and principal whose wife drives a school bus. “Now, it’s time to get on with my job as a public servant, and I want the governor’s partnership.”

While the first lady’s candidate lost, one of Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson’s top aides helped steer last week’s win in another race that could have a major impact on Wisconsin schools. Justice Jon Wilcox, who has voted to allow religious school vouchers in Milwaukee, retained his seat on the state supreme court. He handily defeated Milwaukee lawyer Walt Kelly, with 62 percent of the vote.

In the race for superintendent, Mr. Benson’s biggest backer was the 80,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council, which spent at least $160,000 during the last two weeks of the campaign on television ads.

“He’s created an atmosphere that allows public education to flourish,” said Terry Craney, the president of the teachers’ union.

Ms. Cross, a 27-year teacher who plans to continue working at Hortonville High School, blamed her loss partly on the union’s publicity blitz.

“What we needed was a lot of additional funds to have an even playing field,” Ms. Cross said.

Second-Term Agenda

Mr. Benson said his second term will focus on decreasing class sizes, increasing funding for Head Start, and lobbying for a statewide “zero tolerance” policy for students who bring weapons to school.

During the race, Ms. Cross criticized Mr. Benson’s proposed academic standards for grades 4, 8 and 12, saying they needed to be more rigorous and based on knowing key facts, such as state capitals. The candidates also differed on whether to provide vouchers for religious schools, with Ms. Cross in favor of them and Mr. Benson opposed. (“Primary Sets Up Rematch For Wis. Schools Chief,” Feb. 26, 1997.)

Justice Wilcox was among the three state supreme court judges who found last year that such vouchers are constitutional, though the court deadlocked, with one judge abstaining, and returned the case to a lower court.

The high court will likely have a chance to reconsider the issue, however. A circuit court judge in January struck down the planned expansion of the Milwaukee choice program into religious institutions, and the state is appealing that ruling. (“Judge Overturns Expanded Wis. Voucher Plan,” Jan. 22, 1997.)

State rules prevented Mr. Kelly from revealing his stance on school vouchers during the campaign. The teachers’ union backed him, however, because of his record of advocating civil rights.

“We knew where Jon Wilcox stood on religious schools, and that’s a huge issue with our membership,” Mr. Craney said. “We felt very comfortable with Walt Kelly, but we were going up against Gov. Thompson’s machine.”

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