Published Online: March 18, 2008
Published in Print: March 19, 2008, as Authority Grab Eroding Stature of State Boards

Authority Grab Eroding Stature of State Boards

The power of state school boards nationwide is gradually being eroded as lawmakers and governors seek to expand their authority over K-12 education and, in some cases, reverse education policy set in motion by elected or appointed boards.

This year alone, state boards in Florida, Ohio, and Vermont are targets of legislation that would either eliminate them outright or reduce their authority, while the governor in Idaho is considering ways to seize greater control over the panel in his state.

And members of those boards may have good reason to worry. In Minnesota, the legislature abolished the state board of education in 1998. New Mexico did essentially the same thing in 2003, when the board was stripped of its authority and relegated to advisory-only status.

“We can’t be cavalier anymore,” said Brenda Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education. “What’s most disappointing is that these changes usually aren’t about kids, but about politics and personality and control.”

Governors, meanwhile, are well aware of the political, fiscal, and moral responsibility they bear for K-12 education, and eager for ways to enhance their authority to set policy.

“The governor wants a direct line of responsibility to education, rather than a board with fractured accountability,” said Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who wants to move his state board to an advisory role.

And state legislators, who shape education policy by crafting budgets and passing laws, also want to have a say, while some are still worried about vesting full authority with the governor.

Elected, Appointed, and Under Siege

All but two states have boards of education that implement K-12 school policy, and in most states, the governors pick the members. Policymakers in at least four states are considering revamping their boards this year.

Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt, a Republican, is championing changes in education governance in his state that would eliminate the state board of education and vest its authority in the governor’s Cabinet. The proposal also would return the education commissioner’s post to one elected by voters, and not appointed by the governor.

“We are going to move forward on education accountability,” Mr. Pruitt said on March 4, the opening day of the Florida legislative session.

Misunderstood?

Board members and their advocates can find it challenging to defend the existence of a state board of education whose function may be little understood by a state’s residents.

Wisconsin is the only state that never had a state board to begin with. Its constitution requires public schools to be overseen by an elected state superintendent.

In most cases, state boards—the majority of them appointed by governors—oversee a state’s department of education, making rules to implement state laws, and sometimes picking the state’s education chief. Depending on the personalities on the board, it can also help set an education vision for the state.

“These are very committed people who volunteer their personal time,” said Ms. Welburn of the state boards’ association. “With these boards, you get a higher level of statesmanship.”

But the boards are hardly immune from controversy. In Kansas, for instance, the board of education has waged a number of high-profile battles over the status of evolution in the state’s science standards.

And, in some cases, a board’s policy positions can spark a legislative backlash. In Utah last year, the state board of education came under attack during a fight over a constitutional amendment to create taxpayer-funded vouchers. Many board members opposed the amendment, which ultimately failed, and pro-voucher legislators talked of retooling the board after the defeat. But so far, that idea has gone nowhere.

Revamping state boards is part of an overall movement among many states to consolidate education power, usually with the governor. Some governors, including Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, have tried to put the selection of their school chiefs entirely under their control. ("Quest for Seamless System Leads Governors to Seek New Education Authority," Jan. 23, 2008.)

Others, including Ohio’s Gov. Strickland, have successfully won the right to appoint their own higher education chief. ("Governors Face Political Hurdles in Seeking Power to Appoint Chiefs," July 18, 2007.)

Chipping Away

States that aren’t proposing to abolish their boards outright, or strip them of authority, have been making more gradual changes that dilute their power.

This year, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, won legislative approval to restructure education governance by creating a gubernatorially appointed secretary of education, and expanding the board of education, whose nine members are already appointed by the governor, by two members.

The new Massachusetts law dilutes the board’s power by giving the new secretary more authority over decisions, such as the hiring of the education commissioner, the state’s schools chief. Last week, Gov. Patrick named S. Paul Reville, the director of the education policy and management program at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, as his new secretary.

In 2005, Arkansas transferred direct control over the state’s division of public school accountability to the education commissioner, who is appointed by the governor. And in 2002 in Illinois, power over school auditing and financial-reporting requirements was transferred to the auditor general from the state board, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“I think what we’ve seen over the last five years is different,” said Kathy Christie, an ECS senior vice president. “There’s been a growing realization that governors can raise the level of control over their state boards.”

That’s what Ohio’s governor is trying to do. Gov. Strickland is pushing a proposal this year that would allow him to pick his own education chief and turn the board, and the state school superintendent, into advisers only. Now, the 19-member board, which hires the superintendent, is not controlled by the governor. He makes eight appointments, while the remaining 11 members are elected statewide.

Gov. Strickland can’t easily eliminate the Ohio school board, because it’s created in the state constitution, but its authority and duties are easier to change because those are spelled out in state law.

Jennifer L. Sheets, the president of the Ohio state board of education, was not available for comment.

In Idaho, calls for change have been sparked by one high-profile incident: The board got into budget trouble when it counted on $1.4 million that it never really had, forcing it to cancel the state achievement tests for 2nd and 9th graders this year. (Those grades are outside the annual testing requirements for grades 3-8 under the accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.)

In response, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, a Republican, has vowed changes, but he hasn’t been specific other than to say he’d like to shift oversight of the state testing program from the board to the department of education.

“His intention is to get [the board] out of management and back to the policymaking side of things,” said Jon Hanian, a spokesman for the governor. Mr. Hanian said the governor—who appoints all the members to five-year terms—is considering changes in the board’s duties and mission, plus some changes in who is on the eight-member board.

Seesawing Policies

In many states, debates surrounding the school board’s role and function crop up every few years.

“We’ve been talking about this, one way or another, for two or three decades, but this time it’s a little different,” said Vermont state board of education chairman Tom James, whose 10-member panel is targeted for elimination under a bill now pending in the state legislature.

The latest proposal would transfer the state board’s duties to the education department and create an education advisory council. Education would be overseen by an education secretary who would be a member of the governor’s Cabinet.

Mr. James said the proposal would simply consolidate the governor’s control over education, rather than increase it, because the commissioner is now selected by the board, which is controlled entirely by the governor. He doesn’t see why the changes are needed.

The board is largely responsible for setting the education mission for the state. In October 2007, it crafted a “Transformation of Education in Vermont Plan,” now being implemented, that stresses individual learning plans for all children and more participation of community members in schools.

“This would kill the initiative in this state for some period of time,” said Mr. James, who was appointed to the board in 2003.

Republican Gov. Jim Douglas’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

Florida lawmakers, meanwhile, can’t seem to make up their minds on their own board of education.

Before 2003, the board of education consisted of the governor and his Cabinet, and an education commissioner elected by voters. But a 1998 voter-approved constitutional amendment, which went into effect in 2003, created a seven-member, governor-appointed board of education, which in turn appoints the chief.

In 2002, the Florida legislature further revamped its state education governance system, streamlining K-12 and university boards, and then a year later, created a higher education board of governors to oversee the individual university boards.

But now lawmakers are fed up with tuition hikes at the state’s colleges and universities approved by the board of governors and are considering undoing their actions, which would ensure that only the legislature could set tuition. The state board of education is caught up in the fight. Under a legislative proposal, the existing board would be dissolved, and the new “board of education” would consist of the governor and his Cabinet.

Or, as Florida Senate spokeswoman Kathy Mears put it: “It would put it back to the way it was.”

Vol. 27, Issue 28, Pages 1,18

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