Wisconsin’s schools superintendent would no longer be an elected position, but rather appointed by the governor with approval by the Senate, under a constitutional amendment proposed by a Republican lawmaker.
The resolution sponsored by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, also would grant the state Legislature the authority “to take immediate action and seek a replacement for the betterment of the state’s education system” if the superintendent were not meeting goals “set by the state,” according to a statement.
Wisconsin’s superintendent office is non-partisan but elections have traditionally featured a candidate supported by Democrats and public school officials and another backed by Republicans and supporters of private-school vouchers, charters and other public school alternatives.
Each superintendent is elected for a four-year term.
The proposal comes after a string of contentious state budgeting cycles during which Republican lawmakers and Superintendent Tony Evers have clashed — over how public schools should be funded, measured and held accountable for students’ academic achievement.
Evers has unsuccessfully proposed to overhaul the state’s school funding formula three times since first being elected in 2009, for example.
Evers, who was re-elected for a second term in 2013, also adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, and continued to support them in recent years as the standards became increasingly unpopular among conservative lawmakers.
He also opposed Gov. Scott Walker’s landmark collective bargaining measure that affected public school teachers, and signed a petition to recall Walker.
Sanfelippo said Monday that the amendment he’s seeking is part of a “host” of bills that would address “the centralization of power from Madison, breaking it up and sending it back to the school districts.”
He said turning the state superintendent into an appointed position would make it more accountable.
“We need a superintendent that is more accountable to the Legislature and the governor, who funds education and who taxes the people to pay for education,” he said. “I know our entire party is not happy with a public school system that can’t even get 37 percent of the students proficient in reading.”
According to DPI data, 36.6 percent of the state’s students were considered proficient in reading in the 2013-14 school year, the latest data set available.
DPI spokesman John Johnson said Evers was not available Monday for an interview. Johnson called the proposal “divisive.”
“It’s just unfortunate that there’s a single legislator that wants to re-politicize a battle around public education,” Johnson said. “It’s just a divisive distraction. It seems odd to put politics in front of kids.”
When asked if Johnson believes proposals made by Evers that have been unsuccessful, such as the funding formula change, might have a better shot at being implemented if the state schools chief were appointed, Johnson said no.
“I really see this as a fundamental change in how we do democracy in this state,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any benefit from that. Where does that stop — is attorney general next?”
According to the National Association of School Boards of Education, Wisconsin is one of 13 states that pick its chief schools officer through an election. Johnson said the position has been elected since statehood in 1848.
Wisconsin also is one of just three states that don’t have a statewide school board. Governors of Minnesota and New Mexico, states that also do not have a board, appoint those states’ chief schools officers.
“Nearly every other state agency in Wisconsin is led by an appointed administrator, so it makes sense to treat DPI the same so we can have a more cohesive state government,” Sanfelippo said in the statement.
Senate Education Committee chairman Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said he opposed the measure.
“People get upset when education becomes a political issue and it really should be bipartisan, and I think electing a nonpartisan person to run it is important in our state,” said Olsen.
Olsen said there could be some benefit to appointing the state schools chief because that person would be involved in the governor’s cabinet meetings.
“They would be on the team. Now, you have to weigh the good and the bad of that whole thing, though,” Olsen said. “The decisions that the secretary would make — would they become the best for education or for political (reasons)?
“You’ll always have that in the back of your mind.”
Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council teachers union, said taking voters out of the decision would mean the state’s superintendent would end up answering to “politicians instead of parents.”
“Public schools provide opportunities for all students and exist to support democracy, so politicians shouldn’t turn their backs on democracy when it comes to the top education post,” she said.
Myranda Tanck, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Fitzgerald had not yet had a chance to review the proposal.
“He will do so prior to this week’s caucus meeting and will discuss the bill with Senate Republicans at that time,” she said.
Assembly Education Committee chairman Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did spokeswomen for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
A spokeswoman for Walker declined to answer whether the governor supported the proposal.
To amend the state constitution, two consecutive legislatures must approve a resolution. Then voters must approve the change in a referendum.