Wis. Governor, Chief Spar Over Standards

By Millicent Lawton — January 29, 1997 2 min read

When Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin gives his State of the State Address this week, the decibel level in the debate over statewide academic standards may be turned up a notch or two.

And the arguing could get even louder next month when a primary election has the man responsible for the standards, state schools chief John T. Benson, opposed by six people who think they can do his job better than he can.

The Republican governor is expected to use his speech to try to show up an ongoing standards-writing effort by one of his favorite targets, Mr. Benson and the state education department that he heads. Mr. Thompson may propose his own set of model standards.

The education department just released its second draft version of standards for what students in grades 4, 8, and 12 should know and be able to do in mathematics, science, English, and social studies. The standards are voluntary.

But the governor thinks he can write better standards and plans to say so in his speech, Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum said last week.

Mr. McCallum, also a Republican, shares the governor’s complaints. “The first draft [of standards] I said was fuzzy, feel-good. What I want are knowledge-based or fact-based standards that can be objectively tested.”

Specific Standards

Mr. McCallum said that the standards are too focused on the process by which students should learn and not enough on the facts they need to know. He said the standards fail to mention Abraham Lincoln and World War II, for example. A copy of the standards does list World War II as one event students should know in the period 1920 to 1945.

The second draft tried to address those kinds of criticisms, Superintendent Benson said in a letter accompanying the document. “You will find a considerably greater degree of specificity without usurping the curricular control of local districts,” he wrote.

A counterproposal would pose no problem, said Steven B. Dold, the state’s deputy superintendent. “We welcome the governor’s involvement in trying to develop a set of standards of which we can all be proud.”

Mr. Dold played down differences between Mr. Benson and Mr. Thompson. “They may disagree on some of the details,” he said,"but by and large they share a similar vision.”

Lt. Gov. McCallum also criticized what he said was the closed nature of the standards-writing process--despite numerous public forums and wide dissemination of the standards. “Instead of being open and listening,” he said of education department officials, “they’re trying to justify their approach.”

But the process so far has been “a very open discussion,” Mr. Dold said.

A History of Animosity

It’s no surprise that the governor is finding fault with an effort headed up by Mr. Benson. Mr. Thompson lost an effort to effectively gut Mr. Benson’s nonpartisan post when the state supreme court last year nullified a law that would have altered the constitutional office. Mr. Thompson said he wanted to be able to appoint his own Cabinet-level education commissioner. (“Thompson’s Plan To Increase School Control Rejected,” April 10, 1996.)

“There is a history of Thompson and Benson having a fairly acrimonious relationship,” said Michael Apple, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It is very hard to sort out what part of it is the long-term animosity between the governor’s office and the department of public instruction and what part of it is political.”

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