Judge Deals Setback to Wisconsin’s Walker on Education

A law that vested the final decision making authority with Governor Scott Walker on regulations regarding the Wisconsin education system has been partially overturned by a judge because it violated the state Constitution, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. The law, which was passed and signed last year, would have given both Walker and the secretary of the state Department of Administration the power to veto measures proposed by the state agencies — including the one in charge of the education system.

In a ruling last Tuesday, Dane County Circuit Judge Amy Smith invalidated a portion of the law, saying that it violated the Wisconsin Constitution which strictly separates the duties of the state’s chief executive and the state superintendent of public instruction. The other departments covered by the law were exempt from the ruling since the constitution doesn’t explicitly list duties assigned to them.

“Administrative rule-making is an important way in which a superintendent exercises his or her constitutional authority over the supervision of public instruction,” Smith wrote. “Because Act 21 allows the governor to bar the superintendent from proposing rules, or even from beginning the process of rule-making by submitting a scope statement to the Legislature, Act 21 places the governor in a position superior to the superintendent in the supervision of public instruction.”

The lawsuit to invalidate the legislation was filed by Madison Teachers Inc, the Wisconsin Education Association Council and other education groups around the state. Walker, DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch and schools superintendent Tony Evers were listed as defendants. Although Evers was a defendant in the lawsuit, somewhat unusually, he actually submitted a brief supporting the plaintiffs. After the verdict was handed down, Evers expressed satisfaction with Smith’s findings.

The law in question, which was passed after Walker won the gubernatorial election and was signed by him when he took office in 2011, restricted state agencies from drafting new regulations prior to obtaining approval from his office. Those opposed to the law say that it represented a “power grab” by the governor. Education groups specifically argued that the governor and non-elected state officials shouldn’t have more power to decide educational policy than a popularly-elected DPI Superintendent.

Walker’s administration countered the Legislature can adjust the superintendent’s powers and making rules isn’t an essential part of the superintendent’s duty to oversee public education.

But Smith found that rulemaking is the chief way the superintendent controls public instruction. Since the law grants the governor the power to block DPI rules, the language puts the governor in a superior position over the superintendent, amounting to a constitutional violation, she said.