PO Box 2502
Madison, WI 53701
February 8, 2021 – Election of State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Note: this paper originally appeared as an article in the February 2009 WHPA newsletter (Issue #99). It has been updated for clarity.
On February 16, in the spring primary, and on April 6, in the general election, Wisconsin voters will choose the next State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, WHPA does not endorse any political candidate, or ally itself with any political organization. As a reminder, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction heads the state Department of Public Instruction, which advances public schools and public libraries. Under Wisconsin law, DPI must create and process the PI-1206 Homeschool Report. As private schools, homeschools are not otherwise affected by DPI policies or actions.
While WHPA does not endorse political candidates or groups, and the State Superintendent does not wield great power over homeschoolers, WHPA does have a vested interest in understanding the role of the office of the Superintendent, and how the views of a particular candidate can shape that office, in general. The goal of this paper is to inform, and not to convince you to vote for or against a particular candidate.
Some of the issues are complex and, for some people, emotions may run high. Please read this paper carefully and consider the complexities. Working to maintain our homeschooling freedoms, approaching this election calmly and logically, and considering the facts involved provides us with an unusual opportunity. We can set an example for how elections can be handled without misleading sound bites, oversimplification, misinformation, disinformation, and mudslinging. Instead, in approaching this election, we can become informed about the issues, consider them carefully, and act on our principles.
General Background Information on the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction
The State Superintendent of Public Instruction heads the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which is part of the executive branch of Wisconsin’s state government. Unlike many states, the Wisconsin Constitution gives the primary responsibility for education to local school districts, not the DPI or the Superintendent. This means that the Superintendent’s power and authority are more limited than the title might suggest. In fact the Superintendent and the DPI advise local school districts. Sometimes this advice carries a significant amount of weight, but it’s still advisory and often not legally binding.
Another limitation on the Superintendent and the DPI comes from the fact that the only way the Department can get money to operate is by going to the state legislature. This gives the legislature considerable power over the DPI and means that the Superintendent cannot set policy on any matter that costs money without agreement from the legislature. Therefore, no matter how strongly a Superintendent may feel about certain issues or policies, they cannot make sweeping changes without legislative approval.
However, the DPI does have some influence in the legislature. In addition, the Superintendent can unilaterally introduce legislation (although they have little control over what happens to the legislation once it is introduced, including how it is changed by amendment and whether or not it passes). Therefore, the Superintendent has enough power to make a difference in some areas, including creating real problems on some issues. In short, it matters to us as homeschoolers who the Superintendent is and how they view homeschooling.
Relationship of the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to Homeschooling
Because the DPI has authority over public education, but not over private education, including homeschooling, WHPA is committed to maintaining a position independent of the DPI. Despite the fact that the State Superintendent has no direct or constitutional basis for overseeing or supervising homeschools, some former State Superintendents (and candidates for this office) have taken strong positions opposing homeschooling.
The history of the relationship between homeschoolers and the Superintendent provides helpful perspective. Herbert Grover, who served as Superintendent from 1981 to 1993, was a strong and vocal opponent of homeschooling, arguing that it needed to be strongly regulated by the DPI. It was during his tenure that homeschoolers, working together through WHPA (which was then WPA), had to fight for our current and reasonable homeschooling law, and establish the fact that the State Superintendent and the DPI do not have oversight or any other role regarding homeschooling in Wisconsin except to provide and process the PI-1206 Homeschool Report.
Superintendent Grover’s successors, John Benson (1993-2001), Elizabeth Burmaster (2001-2009), Tony Evers (2009-2019), and Carolyn Stanford Taylor (2019-present) have taken a hands–off approach, and accepted that under Wisconsin statutes, the only role the DPI has in homeschooling is processing the PI-1206 Homeschool Report.
While one might assume having a homeschool opponent leading the DPI could threaten our homeschooling freedoms, there are also five good reasons why having a homeschool advocate as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction could also undermine and therefore threaten our homeschooling freedoms.
First, having the State Superintendent be a homeschool advocate is inconsistent with WHPA’s policy, in place since 1984, of keeping homeschooling independent of the DPI.
Second, homeschoolers forfeit our hard-won power when we turn to a public official to make our case for us before the Legislature. This is true whether the person is a state legislator or the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Our power as homeschoolers is based on our grassroots efforts in which we homeschoolers take direct independent action with our own legislators to preserve and protect our freedoms.
Our grassroots power is weakened in at least four ways when we have a public official advocating for us instead of being our own advocates.
- Some homeschoolers think the public official will accurately represent homeschoolers’ interests and therefore won’t work on issues themselves.
- The public official typically (in fact, nearly inevitably) thinks of homeschooling through their own experience. They may think that state standards or state testing are reasonable requirements for the education of all students and may not realize that this would or could be a problem for homeschoolers.
- A single legislator, while in a position to introduce legislation directly, is only one person and has only one vote. The State Superintendent does not even have a vote in the Legislature. Such officials cannot guarantee anything. Because they cannot control what happens to legislation once it is introduced, legislation they initiate for one purpose may be changed a great deal through amendments and turn into laws that undermine our freedoms.
- However well-intentioned a public official may be, if they are not homeschooling themselves, understandably, they are likely to be less committed to homeschooling freedoms than we are. If they are homeschooling themselves, they are likely to assume that all other homeschoolers think as they do and would agree to things that are acceptable to them. They are likely to overlook the fact that families homeschool for different reasons and in different ways and oppose requirements such as state-mandated tests and state defined standards, as well as taxpayer-funded benefits such as tax credits, tax deductions, and vouchers.
Third, having a homeschool advocate as State Superintendent could easily create a backlash against homeschoolers in both the Wisconsin Legislature and with local school boards, which is where the real decisions about education are made. We could lose in big ways if the Legislature decided to oppose the State Superintendent on the issue of homeschooling. Such action by the Legislature would be the opposite of what happened in 1984 when Wisconsin’s homeschooling law was passed, and again in 1990 when the Legislative Council did a study of homeschooling. In both cases, the State Superintendent had decided to work to increase the DPI’s power and authority over homeschoolers. In both cases, homeschoolers saw the threat from the State Superintendent clearly, and took decisive action. The Legislature came to our aid because they recognized the rights and freedoms of homeschoolers, and helped to codify and protect them.
Fourth, because homeschoolers do not want anything from the government, and in fact, oppose offers of “help” from the government, we have nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, from having a State Superintendent who is a homeschool advocate.
Fifth, no matter how well intentioned and no matter how committed to homeschooling freedoms a candidate may be, being labeled as a supporter of homeschooling raises other issues. People who do not understand the ways in which government “help” undermines homeschooling freedoms, who do not value homeschooling freedoms, or who are willing to risk these freedoms in exchange for “help” , are likely to be encouraged by having a “supporter of homeschooling” as State Superintendent. They are then more likely to acquiesce to infringements on our right to homeschool. They are also likely to pressure both the Superintendent and the Legislature to get the “help” they want.
Is Homeschooling an Issue in this Campaign?
Homeschooling has not been an issue in recent campaigns for State Superintendent. Once superintendents were elected, homeschoolers, working together through WHPA, watched to ensure the superintendent did not recommend or push for increased regulation of homeschooling or favors for homeschoolers. As a result, we have maintained our reasonable homeschooling law. WHPA maintains that the less homeschooling becomes an issue in this campaign, the better.
However, homeschooling is likely to receive more attention in this campaign.
- With the increased number of families who have turned to homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, homeschooling is likely to be a campaign topic. There are a few important pitfalls associated with this likely interest in homeschooling.
- First, homeschooling is generally a topic the media looks to for stories about human interest, conflict, or controversy.
- Second, the ongoing pandemic has added to the usual confusion of terms and law around homeschooling. For example, many times in the last year, the media have generally applied the word “homeschooling” to all students not attending a traditional public school in person. There will be confusion around the legal designation of homeschooling in Wisconsin, as this campaign ramps up.
- Homeschoolers are recognized as generally politically active, especially in Wisconsin. This reputation is well-deserved since it was homeschoolers, working collectively through WHPA (then WPA), in 1984 to secure the reasonable homeschool law we now have. Homeschoolers have been actively involved in numerous legislative battles since then.
What you can do to minimize homeschooling’s presence in this election:
- You can share the information included in this paper. For convenience, you can link directly to this page. (https://www.homeschooling-wpa.org/wiki/dpisuperintendentelection2021/)
- If asked about homeschooling as an issue in the campaign, you can say it should not be an issue because the State Superintendent is responsible for public education and homeschooling is part of private education.
- You can remind people that not everyone who is at home during school hours is a homeschooler, under Wisconsin law. Most of those students are in fact public or private school students, learning remotely. This distinction is fundamental.
- You can avoid asking the candidates for their position on homeschooling. Asking for their position could backfire by making the possibility of increased regulation of homeschooling an issue for one or more candidates. In addition, we don’t want to encourage candidates to seek homeschoolers’ votes by offering tax credits or other so-called “help” or benefits, any of which would undermine our homeschooling freedoms.
We Need to be Vigilant After the Election
Regardless of which candidate is elected and what they have promised during the campaign, WHPA will continue to monitor developments with the DPI and the Legislature.
- WHPA will continue to work to prevent the introduction of any new homeschooling legislation. Any such legislation, even a bill that seems supportive of homeschooling, can easily be changed through amendments and end up increasing state regulation of homeschooling.
- WHPA will continue to work to maintain the clear legal distinction between homeschooling and public school programs that are based in students’ homes. Students who are enrolled in any public school program, and who therefore benefit from public tax money, are required to comply with state standards. If we don’t maintain the distinction between homeschools and public schools in the home, the media, the Legislature, and the general public are likely to assume that homeschoolers should also be required to comply, which would undermine our homeschooling freedoms.
- WHPA will continue to oppose legislation to “help” homeschoolers or grant homeschoolers so-called favors. Any “help” or favors the government would give homeschoolers, whether direct grants of money, tax credits, tax deductions, vouchers, allowing tax-favored college funds to be used for homeschooling expenses, or allowing public school per-pupil funding to “follow” a student, including for homeschooling expenses, all pose a more serious threat. They may sound appealing to some homeschoolers, and the risk that they would undermine our homeschooling freedoms may not be immediately obvious. But there is no doubt that the risk is real. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Government money always has strings attached. Homeschoolers’ experiences in other states have shown that increased regulation comes with or follows on such favors. Difficulties also arise because some well-meaning politicians and public officials mistakenly think that they can support homeschooling by granting such favors, not realizing the risk involved. Also, some candidates may try to win homeschoolers’ votes by promising favors. Finally, having a candidate who vociferously advocates for homeschoolers will make some homeschoolers feel relieved of the need to do the grassroots work to ensure our rights and protect our freedoms. This important work is the only way homeschoolers in Wisconsin have successfully protected our rights to date.
In closing, as with any election, research each candidate and learn their position on the issues that matter to you, and cast a thoughtful, well-informed vote.