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Wisconsin Supreme Court Hears Case on Powers of State Superintendent


The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday regarding who ultimately administers public education – the state superintendent or the governor.

The court is considering whether to overturn its own ruling from 20 years ago. It stopped then-Gov. Tommy Thompson from taking control of the Department of Public Instruction. Current state leaders have considered doing the same.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the governor and legislature cannot wrestle power away from the elected state school superintendent. Tommy Thompson was governor at the time and wanted to put the DPI under his control. He lost.

Then, when Gov. Walker took office in 2011, the Legislature passed a law allowing him to block any rules the superintendent enacts. Several parents and teachers sued. Attorney Susan Crawford represents them.

“Specific provisions of Act 21 put the governor in control of the rule-making of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and thereby violate Article 10, section 1 of the Wisconsin constitution,” Crawford says.

Crawford insists that the state constitution vests supervision of public education, in the DPI chief. She says the 1996 court ruling affirmed that opinion. Attorney Rick Esenberg is urging the state high court to re-examine that 19-year-old decision. He claims there’s room for different interpretations.

“If this court believes that that can be done by at least clarifying the language of Thompson, I will be a very, very happy lawyer,” Esenberg says.

While Esenberg has filed a Friend of the Court brief, the state attorney’s argument is that the Legislature can change who has rule-making authority.

Superintendent Evers issued a statement following Tuesday’s arguments. It says, in part, “The framers of the state constitution intended that the state’s public education system be overseen by the state superintendent, an independent, nonpartisan constitutional officer directly elected by the people.”

The high court is expected to issue a decision by summer.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.