Wis. judge overturns gov's education powers


MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A portion of state law that gives the governor the power to approve or block new education rules and policies is unconstitutional, a Madison judge ruled Tuesday.

Dane County Circuit Judge Amy Smith said the statutes give the governor more power over schools than the superintendent of public instruction, a violation of the Wisconsin Constitution. The ruling restores Superintendent Tony Evers' ability to design policies affecting everything from teacher licensing requirements to voucher schools without going through Republican Gov. Scott Walker's office.

It also marks another legal setback for Walker and Republican legislators. Two other Madison judges already have blocked a GOP-authored law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls and a third has overturned a major chunk of Walker's signature legislation stripping most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights.

The governor's office is appealing all those decisions and Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie promised the administration would appeal Smith's ruling, too.

"We're confident we'll win on appeal," Werwie said.

Evers, meanwhile, issued a terse statement saying he was pleased with Smith's finding.

"I have been consistent in my opposition to this legislation on constitutional grounds ... my concerns are validated by this ruling," he said.

The dispute centers on statutes Republican lawmakers passed in May 2011 that require state agencies to get gubernatorial approval before they can proceed with drafting new administrative rules, legal language that enacts state laws and creates the framework for agency initiatives and policies.

The new statutes represented a significant departure from past practice, when the Legislature had to actively object to a proposal to stop it. Walker said the changes would provide a greater check on agency rules that go too far.

The GOP's opponents decried the law as a naked power grab. The presidents of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers' union, and Madison Teachers, Inc., the union that represents Madison teachers, and a number of parents filed a lawsuit a little more than a year ago alleging the law can't apply to the Department of Public Instruction.

They argued the law gives other state officers more power over schools than the DPI superintendent, an elected officer.

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.

"Our constitution was written to protect our schools from political power grabs, to be sure that sound education decisions are made in the best interest of students," WEAC president Mary Bell said in a statement. "The court's ruling is the correct one."