Governors: No Longer Simply Patrons, They Are Policy Chiefs

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A decade ago, if you asked a casual observer of public education to name some "education governors," the inevitable answer was "Terry Sanford," followed by a long pause.

In 1985, the response is likely to be: "Name one who isn't."

"The governors generally seize on this as a political issue, but I use that term in its best sense," says Denis P. Doyle, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute. "The public was genu-inely concerned. The governors knew someone in a position of leadership had to do something responsible and intelligent, and they knew things couldn't get much worse. Governors do respond to things that way, to expressions of public outrage, and they pick up issues and take them as far as their judgment tells them they should go."

News Analysis

In many instances that has been quite far, and in a relatively short time. It is the rare governor who has not, in the past two years, devoted a large portion of his or her time, energy, and political capital, not just to the school-finance issues that have long been the purview of the executive branch in most states, but to nuts-and-bolts questions of educational policy. From the career paths of teachers in Tennessee to a variation on the voucher concept in Minnesota to district consolidation in Arkansas, governors are challenging the status quo, using as weapons their prestige and the budget process.

Many observers concur that the current surge of gubernatorial involvement had its beginnings in the late spring of 1983, when Continued on Page X

Governors: No Longer Patrons, They Are

Education's Policy Chiefs

Continued from Page 1

the National Commission on Excellence in Education and the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth issued reports within a few days of one another--and, significantly, at a time when most state legislatures were out of session or winding down.

The excellence commission "didn't say outright that the governors were going to be on the point," says Gloria Whitman, associate director of the Council of State Planning Agencies, a group made up of governors' policy aides. But it deemed the problems of education "national" at a time when it was also clear that large new federal programs would not be forthcoming.

A few days later, when the task force, under the leadership of a prominent "education governor," issued a report identifying the state level as the arena for reforms, "that put the governors in the driver's seat," Ms. Whitman says.

"I guess the time for major reforms was ripe, and education at any level was not prepared to generate those reforms from inside," says Virginia's secretary of education, John Casteen 3rd.

But, he adds, "People who think that it's brand new have not read their history very carefully."

Mr. Casteen, who has written on the rise of the education governors, suggests that the recent initiatives are the fruit of a capacity for policy development that has been two decades in the making and is still maturing. He traces the phenomenon back to the early 1960's, when James B. Conant conceived the Education Commission of the States and Mr. Sanford sought to make it work.

"Conant set forth the argument that education policy was a stepchild in the 50's, and made the case that leading legislators ought to formulate policy," Mr. Casteen says. "Terry Sanford took the position that you should strengthen this capacity in the governors' offices so they can direct education policy in the same way as they make executive policy in other areas. They got together and allied their purposes."

The ecs, together with regional organizations such as the Southern Regional Education Board and the New England Compact, has helped strengthen state-level policymaking capacity, Mr. Casteen notes.

Concentration of Authority

The same period saw major changes in the makeup of state budgets and the process through which they were formulated. Spurred6largely by finance reform and the growth of federal programs requiring state administration, authority gradually became concentrated in the state capitals, although state officials did not always choose to wield it.

In most states now, one-third to one-half or more of the total state appropriation goes to education, and the executive proposals that form the basis for state budgets are viewed as powerful tools for influencing the conduct of local school districts.

"What appears to be happening," write Mr. Doyle and Chester E. Finn Jr. in the November 1984 issue of The Public Interest, "is that local school systems are evolving in practice into something that they always were in a constitutional sense: subordinate administrative units of a state educational system, with some residual power to modify statewide regulations and procedures ... and ... to supplement state spending with locally raised revenues."

Need for Economic Growth

Finally, events of the past several years have given governors a powerful motive to intervene in education: economic development. Not only are they keenly aware of the fiscal and social consequences of plant closings and offshore competition, but they are in a unique position to force coordination of the efforts of the agencies with jurisdiction over such diverse ingredients of industrial development as highways, labor relations, and education and training.

"It's becoming more and more apparent that the race of the future is going to go to the educated," says Mr. Doyle.

The Rise of the Staff

Governors seeking to play a more aggressive role in education policy have increasingly tended to seek advice from their own staffs. While most governors regularly consult their chief state school officers, aides to several said their bosses consider state departments of education, and their administrators, to be "part of the problem."

According to lists supplied by the ecs and other governmental organizations, every governor now has at least one education adviser of his or her own choosing, apart from the chief state school officer. Many have more than one.

The education aides are a varied group. In a handful of states, including Virginia and Pennsylvania, they hold cabinet-level positions; more typically, the education adviser is a member of the governor's own staff, and may have other duties as well. The aides' backgrounds are varied--some are budget experts, others former educators. A few, as in Ohio, have been hired under the rubric of economic development.

While the Council of State Planning Agencies, their professional organization, has no firm figures on education-policy advisers, Ms. Whitman says the number is unquestionably increasing. "They're not really staffed up to the extent they need. They are looking for people, realizing they're going to have to gear up," she says. "They are not going to use an elected superintendent as the vehicle for the governor's initiative."

She also sees a change in the type of person hired. "Our members used to be functional planners, like land-use planners," she says. "Now, they're really policy advisers."

Expansion, Tension in Indiana

Gov. Robert Orr of Indiana, for example, "got by" for four years with one education aide and frequent consultations with academicians and the state superintendent, according to R. Mark Lubbers, the Governor's executive assistant for communications. In recent months, however, Governor Orr has added two education specialists to assist him with his education initiatives and intends to add another, at an estimated cost, counting benefits, office space, and support staff, of about $200,000.

Indiana illustrates another feature of the governors' aggressive stance on education: that it is not always unqualifiedly welcome, particularly where the remaining vestiges of local control are concerned.

"There are some local superintendents who wish we'd go away," admits Mr. Lubbers. "And some of the politicians were complaining because it's hard to measure the impact of putting more money into the first three grades. They would like to see more money put into high schools, vocational education, higher education--places where you get a faster and more visible payoff."

Likewise, Gov. Bill Clinton of Ar-kansas incurred the wrath of rural school officials and legislators when a gubernatorially appointed commission suggested forced mergers of substandard school districts.

Structural Changes

The governors who are most active in seeking programmatic reforms also appear to be seeking structural changes in the system that will survive their own terms of office. Governor Orr, for example, has procured reorganization of Indiana's state board of education and is prodding it to act as an initiator of policy instead of reacting to the requests and agendas placed before it.

And initiatives in a number of states suggest a shift away from elected chief state school officers, toward appointment and confirmation. Whether at the instigation of governors or not, Mr. Casteen points out, this trend "brings the chief into the sphere of policy development.''

Initiators or Providers?

Analyses of governors' state-of-the-state addresses indicate that education has dominated the speeches for most of the past 20 years--fittingly, as it has dominated their budgets--and observers do not expect that to change. What is in question is whether governors will retreat to their former role as providers of resources, or continue the move into policy direction, or quickly make lasting changes and get out again, as many did with public higher education in the 1960's and early 1970's.

Mr. Doyle, who describes himself as "a cynic about the attention span of politicians," asserts nonetheless that the governors will remain heavily involved in policy, and will continue to deepen that involvement, at least as long as the fundamental transition in the economy demands a flexible response from educational institutions.

Asked whether more will be willing, as have Gov. Robert D. Graham of Florida and others, to set a verifiable goal and muster public support to keep the pressure on at the local level, Mr. Casteen says, "They should be willing to put themselves on the line," adding, after a pause, "At least it's with regard to education now, and not the price of hunting licenses."

Vol. 04, Issue 20

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