Acting Calif. Chief Presses Fight for Policy Control
Pushing a long-running dispute toward its final resolution, California's acting superintendent of public instruction has asked the state supreme court to decide who controls the policy direction of the state education department.
The state court of appeals this year ruled that the state board of education, which is appointed by the governor, has the authority to set the goals and direction for the state education system. The elected schools chief, the court declared, is responsible for implementing those policies and managing the education department.
The decision resulted from a heated 1991 conflict between Bill Honig, the state superintendent, and Joseph D. Carrabino, the chairman of the state board, over Mr. Honig's refusal to submit to the board's directives. (See Education Week, April 24, 1991.)
Although neither Mr. Honig, who was ousted this year following conviction on felony conflict-of-interest charges, nor Mr. Carrabino are still in office, the current leadership of the education department is continuing the fight.
William D. Dawson, a longtime deputy to Mr. Honig who is heading the department until a gubernatorial nominee is approved by the legislature, last month formally asked the supreme court to review the appeals court's decision.
"A decision as important as this, which will forever impact K-12 education in California, deserves the consideration of the highest court,'' Mr. Dawson said.
"There is an incredibly important principle at stake in this lawsuit,'' Mr. Dawson continued. "It has to do with the people of California maintaining control of their schools through an elected state superintendent rather than a part-time appointed state board which is not accountable to them.''
"I would have trouble explaining the court's reasoning to a high school civics class,'' Mr. Dawson contended.
Officials on the other side of the case, however, said the appeals court had found clear justification for handing the board power over the policy vision while giving the superintendent executive authority.
"I don't see any issues being raised now that warrant the supreme court's attention,'' said Sharon L. Browne, a Sacramento lawyer who is representing the state board. "They should be taking their disagreement to the legislature, not to the court.''
Ms. Browne also noted that the appeals court's vision of a board-executive relationship is not only common in many states, but "a well-established structure in California government.''
Historical Record Cited
State education department officials say their stance is rooted in California's constitutional and legal history.
Citing constitutional debates from 1879 and ballot measures dating to 1928, the officials argue that the state's founding fathers and voters have given the elected superintendent primary power for setting education policy.
The review petition filed by Mr. Dawson said the supreme court should consult the historical record, which was not mentioned by the appeals court in its February ruling.
In addition to language from the constitutional convention, the petition cites ballot measures in 1928, 1958, and 1968 that would have made the superintendent an agent of the state board. Voters defeated all three measures.
Additional evidence of the voters' desire for a powerful state chief, the petition claims, is provided by a successful 1946 ballot question that gave the superintendent authority to appoint a senior staff.
Finally, the petition argues that the appeals court overlooked a statute giving the superintendent control of the education department.
'Good-Faith Dialogue' Sought
Both sides agree that the struggle, which has flared at times throughout this century, needs to be resolved.
"The state board has always wanted a good-faith dialogue with the superintendent,'' Ms. Browne said, "but the way they keep pushing this makes it a little uncomfortable.''
The rules committees of the Assembly and Senate have voted to file briefs supporting the department's position, which has also been backed by a host of state education organizations.
The appeals court's ruling has not altered work or the chain of command at the agency, said William Rukeyser, a spokesman for the department. "Some of these issues are non-issues because the board and department have reached a certain modus operandi,'' he said.
The supreme court can refuse to hear the appeal. When the case was originally filed in 1991 with the supreme court, it was transferred to the appeals court.
In part, the bitter power struggle in California arose because Mr. Honig, an outspoken liberal Democrat, filled the nominally nonpartisan superintendency at a time when conservative Republican governors were making appointments to the state board.