When it comes to selecting a leader of the public school system, Wisconsin is the only state in the country that calls on “qualified electors” to make the choice.
The state superintendent of public instruction, a position established by the Wisconsin constitution, lasts four years and is housed within the executive branch of state government. In most states, superintendents are appointed by a state school board or governor.
John Witte, UW-Madison professor emeritus of public affairs and political science, says while the post is meant to be nonpartisan, it has always toed the political line.
“Everybody knows which party they’re in and who is supporting them,” Witte says.
The superintendent runs the administrative apparatus of the state’s schools — across 424 school districts — overseeing teacher licensing, curriculum standards and student aid, and implementing educational programs, some of which are mandated by state law. The superintendent also sits on the Wisconsin Technical College System Board and the UW Board of Regents.
“Around the 1980s things began to change throughout the U.S., and they changed dramatically here in Wisconsin. Superintendents became much more proactive for education, and as the roles of the states increased, so did the roles of state superintendents,” says Witte, referring to state oversight of curriculum and testing standards. “The state superintendent is like a governor for the state school system.”
This spring, Wisconsinites will vote for the next school “governor.” The Feb. 21 primary includes three candidates on the ballot: incumbent Tony Evers; John Humphries, a school administration consultant; and Lowell Holtz, a retired district superintendent. Rick Melcher, who teaches math at Park High School in Racine, is running a write-in campaign. The two candidates with the most votes in the primary will face off in the April 4 general election.