Retirements, Power Shifts Alter Education Leadership in States
Just as the Reagan Administration is moving to transfer more responsibility for education to the states, a soon-to-be-released study suggests that state legislators may be losing interest in making education policy.
Based on responses by 432 state legislators and their staff members, Susan H. Furhman and Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University have drawn the following conclusions:
Many of the legislators who have shaped education policy in the states over the last 15 years are approaching retirement.
The present low status of education makes it an unattractive area for young legislators to focus on, so that finding capable replacements for those retiring is very difficult.
The power to make education-policy decisions in legislatures is shifting increasingly to appropriations committees.
The study predicts a significant "changing of the guard" among top education decisionmakers within state legislatures.
"The current education policymakers over the last 10-15 years have been a stable group of leaders who came to the legislature interested in education and stayed with it," said Ms. Fuhrman. "But a generational change is imminent."
The survey results show that 16 percent of the legislators interviewed are in their last term as elected state officials; 33 percent said they will seek reelection only one more time.
Sixteen percent of the legislators surveyed had served on education committees for more than 15 years, while only 20 percent had served for fewer than five years. Many--43 percent--had at one time or another been teachers, faculty, or had held some other education job.
Education an Unpopular Job
While the retirement of these senior education legislators will necessitate the recruitment of new members into the field, Ms. Fuhrman argued that the unpopular position of education within society today will make such recruitment difficult.
"Money is drying up, the education community is fragmented, other policy areas--such as energy--are considered sexier," Ms. Fuhrman said.
"Some legislators may have an interest in education, but they shy away because things
are becoming too conflict-ridden for their taste," she added. Ms. Fuhrman also contended that state legislators are changing, and this, too, could result in state legislatures paying less attention to education. She notes that younger legislators "are increasingly peripatetic. They are not as likely to specialize in any area, including education, as their predecessors."
As a result, Ms. Fuhrman said, education leadership within the legislatures is becoming increasingly disjointed and unstable.
The legislators included in the survey were selected on the basis of recommendations by informed sources on their ability "to get something done or stop something from being done in education policy and appropriations."
Power of 'Money' Committees
The study concludes that appropriations committees are playing an increasingly important role in making education policy. Said Ms. Fuhrman: "The money committees are where the action is."
Eighteen percent of the education policy-makers surveyed served only on fiscal appropriations committees, while 26 percent--those Ms. Fuhrman calls the "really powerful"--served on both education and fiscal committees.
The significance of this shift of power to the money committees, Ms. Fuhrman said, is substantial.
"The growth in the role of money committees means that more and more education business is getting done in committees where trade-offs between education and other services are more explicit and where decisionmakers are less wholeheartedly committed to education," she added.
In general, state legislators are much less reliant on state education departments than in the past, according to the survey. Few legislators said they depend on state education officials to initiate legislation; in some cases, legislators are highly critical of the state officials, characterizing them as "overbureaucratized" and "incompetent.''
In all, 432 state legislators and staff members responded to the survey, which will be published in two volumes as Legislative Education Leadership in the States and Shaping Education Policy in the States.
Vol. 01, Issue 01, Page 5