College & Workforce Readiness

Wis. Governor Feuds With Schools Chief Over Exit Test

By Julie Blair — October 31, 2001 3 min read
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The architects of Wisconsin’s first-ever high school graduation test made plans to proceed with its development late last week at the governor’s urging, despite state education department officials’ efforts to halt the project for lack of funding.

“Let’s not make a rash decision to vacate the test, especially when we have two constitutional officers that want to do it,” said George Lightbourn, the secretary of the state administration department, referring to Gov. Scott McCallum and state Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster.

On behalf of the Republican governor, Mr. Lightbourn negotiated a deal last week with the state’s testing contractor to keep development of the exam on track.

No funding sources for the multimillion-dollar assessment are apparent, but Mr. Lightbourn said he assured the vendor, CTB/McGraw-Hill in Monterey, Calif., that money may surface in the coming weeks.

But Ms. Burmaster remains unconvinced, said Tony Evers, the deputy state superintendent.

Fight Over Finances

Wisconsin’s high school sophomores are set to participate in a pilot assessment to gauge their understanding of English, mathematics, social studies, and science in April. Passing scores on the test will become one of a battery of requirements for graduation beginning with the class of 2004.

Each student will have four chances to pass the test, but may opt out with parental consent. Scores, or a lack thereof, will be noted on high school transcripts.

Wisconsin’s state schools chief halted the development of the assessment on Oct. 18. The move angered the governor, who charges that the education department is purposely dodging an accountability mandate.

The tension between Ms. Burmaster, elected last spring in a nonpartisan contest, and the governor, who moved up from the lieutenant governor’s post when former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson was named U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, has risen over the past few weeks. Strongly worded letters have been flying between the two offices.

The governor had threatened to reintroduce a budget proposal that would strip the education department of the responsibility for assessment. Lawmakers say, however, that such an action would likely require their approval.

The battle began last summer, when the legislature voted to delay the test’s implementation—opting to make the class of 2005 the first subject to it—in an effort to slow state spending on the assessment, said Rep. Stephen L. Nass, the chairman of the Assembly education committee.

Gov. Scott McCallum

But then Gov. McCallum used his line-item veto to put the test back on track by striking the implementation delay. He lacked authority to restore full funding, however, and signed a budget in August that appropriated $5 million over the biennium for the test’s development and implementationfar less than the program’s initial estimated cost.

At that time, he pledged to seek additional funding. Both Mr. McCallum and the education department agree that no such funding has been forthcoming, but they disagree on how best to proceed.

"[The test] costs about $10.5 million,” said Mr. Evers, the deputy superintendent. “If you apply whatever money the state has allocated for us, that still leaves us about $7.7 million short.”

Gov. McCallum instructed Ms. Burmaster to continue with the exam program, assuring her that money would soon be available.

Help From Washington?

Tim Roby, a spokesman for the governor, said Mr. McCallum expected the federal government to provide funding for assessments in grades 3-8 through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is now being revised in Congress, and that could free up money for the exit test.

Education officials might also find money for the exam elsewhere in its budget, Mr. Roby suggested, or opt for a less costly test.

“The high school graduation test is a significant priority for the governor because it places a focus on accountability,” he said.

Mr. Roby argued that the education department’s delay reveals a fear of accountability. But Mr. Evers denied that. “We wish to implement this test because we believe it [will be] reflective of our state standards,” Mr. Evers said. “This ... is about the finances.”

Democratic Sen. Richard A. Grobschmidt, who chairs the education committee in the Senate, said the education department is run efficiently and must manage a majority of its programs as dictated by lawmakers. There is simply no room to cut, he said.

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