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Oklahoma Legislature May Eliminate State Board of Education as It Exists Today

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Oklahoma would be in a class by itself if lawmakers approve a plan to remove the six appointed members of the state Education Board and replace them with statewide officials.

Senate Bill 435 would eliminate the appointed positions and replace them with the governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

Every state in the nation but two—Minnesota and Wisconsin—have governing boards that oversee their education departments and often regulate local school districts.

And while some boards are elected, some appointed and others a combination of the two, none has statewide elected officials holding the seats.

"I've seen lots of changes in governance and seen almost every system imaginable," said Brenda Wilburn, who has been with the National Association of State Boards of Education for 27 years.

She said Florida used to have state officials sit on the board of education rather than the current system where the governor appoints members.

"One of the challenges they faced was the fact that the members serving on the board—the state attorney general, the insurance commissioner, other members of the Cabinet—really they were not people that had time and some not the inclination to really get involved with education at the level it needs," Wilburn said.

The proposal passed in the Senate along party lines and now will be considered by the House.

Meanwhile, a separate bill passed in the House that aims to reduce the state Education Board's authority.

Both bills were introduced following a power struggle between the six board members appointed by former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, and the newly elected state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, a Republican.

Barresi said she expected opposition from the board when she took office in January and is supportive of the changes proposed by lawmakers.

The board in its first meeting refused to hire her chief of staff, head of communications and finance director, asserted its authority to "assign duties" to the superintendent and questioned whether she was mandated by statute to head the board.

"I knew there would be a tremendous amount of push-back," Barresi said. "I knew this would be a battle. I was ready for it, and I am focused absolutely on the children and making sure that we fundamentally reform education."

Authority Shift

House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, responded to the incident with a bill that would take away the board's authority over the state Education Department and its ability to assign duties to the superintendent, to demand public presentations from department employees, and to create the department's budget for submission to the governor.

"The superintendent of public instruction is an elected official who is accountable to the people and should be allowed to direct the department's budget and personnel," Steele said.

Over the years, the board has been criticized for being a "rubber stamp" for former Superintendent Sandy Garrett, who served for more than 20 years.

Wilburn said part of the reason Oklahoma's board may exercise less autonomy is because the board meetings are managed and the agendas set by the state superintendent, who also is chairman of the board.

"If they didn't want to be a rubber stamp, how could they buck that? You couldn't go to the chair and say let's consider this on the agenda," Wilburn said. "It's very frustrating for really talented citizens to sit on a board that has no authority. Most people don't even know what the state Board of Education is."

Few Past Changes

Fourteen states in the nation have publicly elected state superintendents, and only Indiana also has the superintendent sit as the president of an appointed board.

Oklahoma's board is established in the constitution to supervise "instruction in public schools," with the state schools superintendent as the president of the board.

Other than those specifications, the rest is left up to lawmakers to assign "powers and duties" to the board and establish how members are selected.

Research staff for the House of Representatives indicated legislation was passed in 1911 that established the board as six members, to be appointed by the governor. Lawmakers added another board member in the 1940s but removed the seventh member in the 1950s.

In 1986, the governor recommended the board become advisory but nothing came of the request.

Other than that, the board has changed little in 100 years and seldom has been embroiled in politics the way it has been for the past two months.

Minnesota lawmakers did away with their appointed board of education in 1999.

"The state board provided for public input into the development of state rules and other regulations not too different from having input through your local school board," said Minnesota state Rep. Lyndon Carlson, who has been in office for 38 years and opposed the original measure to do away with the board.

Carlson said he has introduced bills that would bring back the defunct board and might do so again this year.

"Bottom line is: I think there has to be a vehicle for public input with the department of education," Carlson said.

Vol. 30, Issue 24

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