School control fuels debate
Walker seeks more power over public education
By Matt Pommer
The state Supreme Court this month takes up a crucial education question.
It will decide whether administrative rules for elementary and secondary education must first be subject to review by the governor before they are implemented. An appeals court has ruled that the gubernatorial control does not apply to the rules drafted by the elected state superintendent of public instruction.
In short, the case may decide who really is in control of Wisconsin education – the state superintendent of public education or the governor?
Bet on the governor. Four conservatives already are on the seven-member high court. Gov. Scott Walker also gets to name a fifth conservative to replace Justice Patrick Crooks, who died unexpectedly in late September.
Walker has championed alternative education ideas, such as the development of charter schools and taxpayer-financed vouchers for families to send their children to private schools. Private-school interests have backed Walker with campaign contributions and get-out-the-vote support.
The governor may need more of their financial support. His presidential campaign was facing financial difficulties, according to media reports, apparently a major factor in his decision to get out of the White House competition.
Three former Republican speakers of the Assembly have been strong proponents of the private school movement in Wisconsin. Former Speaker Scott Jensen, who resigned from the Assembly in 2006 as the result of a misconduct-in-office scandal, has been the leading proponent of private schools as a lobbyist for the American Federation for Children.
Will alternative private schools improve education in Wisconsin? Each side trots out statistics on the topic, but it really is a matter of power politics rather than scientific measurement. When he was still running for president, Walker was asked about the high rates of poverty and male prison incarceration among minorities in Wisconsin. The governor cited alternative schools as a solution.
In his annual address on the state of education in Wisconsin, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said public-school teachers across America have been disheartened by the “drumbeat” of education legislation and criticism of their work.
“It may make for great political theater, but it’s making it more difficult for our teachers to stay the course,” he said. “Grit, perseverance and resilience can only go so far when our educators’ work is challenged regularly.”
The number of college students preparing to be teachers has declined, and some school districts in outstate Wisconsin have reported difficulties in finding qualified teachers in some subjects.
The changing enrollment and teacher shortage probably reflects in part a reaction of the Walker-led decision to gut public-employee unionism. The governor’s plan came as a surprise as the 2011 budget was unveiled, and Walker himself has described it as a “bomb.”
Conservative Republicans seem to want more than just control over administrative rules – which are like laws. One GOP push is underway in the Capitol to amend the state Constitution and remove the school superintendent’s job as an elective position. The governor would be able to appoint the school chief under that plan.
State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, the chief author of the amendment, said it would make education more accountable. Evers said making the job a political appointment would be a “sad attack on our democracy and our state’s history.”
Amending the state Constitution requires approval by two consecutive Legislatures, and then passage in a statewide vote. It’s a tough sell to tell the public that a governor – whoever it may be – is smarter than the voters.
The expected victory in the Supreme Court case may be all that Republicans really need.