State Education Boards' Power Faces Renewed Challenges

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Gov. James J. Blanchard's call this summer for the abolishment of the Michigan Board of Education has highlighted a recent spate of efforts to curb the independent power of state education boards.

Similar proposals--while not necessarily going as far as Mr. Blanchard's push to do away with the board entirely--have emerged in a least two other states, and experts in the field predict that related efforts may develop elsewhere.

In Ohio, proposed limitations on the power of the state board have become an issue in the gubernatorial race. And Kansas lawmakers have placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot giving the legislature power to eliminate the state board.

More state boards will see their power challenged in coming months, said H. Eugene Wilhoit, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. Such pressures will come from governors, who hold themselves accountable for reaching the goals that emerged from last year's education summit, he said, as well as from legislatures seeking a greater role in education reform.

"I think what we are witnessing is sort of an adjustment in governance in general at the state level," Mr. Wilhoit said. "People are asking very basic questions."

Those questions are likely to focus in particular on boards whose members are chosen by the voters, observed John L. Myers, director of the education program at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Elected boards, he said, tend more often to come into conflict with the governor and legislature. "The trend in governance structure is to8ward appointed boards," he said.

The irony, Mr. Wilhoit argued, is that challenges to state boards on the grounds that they are not moving quickly enough to implement education reform are coming at a time when many of the panels are becoming more active.

An 'Archaic System'

In arguing for elimination of Michigan's board, Governor Blanchard pointed to partisan divisions within the eight-member elected panel. "It is an archaic system which has resulted in a lack of accountability and the unnecessary politicizing of education issues," he said.

Rosemary Freeman, Mr. Blanchard's press secretary, said the Democratic Governor was especially angered by the board when it split along partisan lines on two recent decisions. One was the evaluation of the performance of Superintendent of Public Instruction Donald Bemis, a Blanchard ally, to whom the Republican members of the board gave lukewarm reviews while the Democrats graded him positively.

While declining to comment on the substance of Mr. Blanchard's plan, Mr. Bemis said there was "no question" his evaluation had been marked by partisan tensions.

The other dispute, Ms. Freeman continued, came on the question of implementation of the Governor's initiative to put more computers in classrooms, which the Democrats favored and the Republicans rejected.

Along with abolishing the board, which now appoints the state superintendent, the proposal would transfer most control over education policy to an elected superintendent.

Since it requires amending the constitution, Mr. Blanchard's plan would have to be approved both by the legislature and a state referendum.

But while resolutions calling for such an amendment are expected to be taken up when the legislature returns from its summer recess, lawmakers almost certainly will not meet the Sept. 6 deadline for placing the question on the ballot this November, state officials said.

In responding to the Governor's arguments, board members traded accusations that their partisan opponents' votes on the computer initiative and the superintendent's evaluation were motivated by a desire to support or embarrass Mr. Blanchard in his re-election campaign.

But members from both sides were united in rejecting abolish of the board.

"Totally overlooked in all of this flak is that most decisions are unanimous or nearly so," said Dorothy A. Beardmore, a Republican member of the board who serves as its secretary. "Education is basically not a partisan issue."

"The state board has been quite effective and should be retained as it is," said Barbara Roberts Mason, a Democratic member. Ms. Mason also expressed doubt that any other governing body could address education-policy questions in as much depth.

The board also serves as "a very important buffer" between local school districts and politics at the state level, said Cherry H. Jacobus, the board's Republican president.

In Ohio, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, George V. Voinovich, has called for a re-examination of the the 21-member elected board's relationship to the governor and legislature. The state superintendent should report directly to those branches of government, he has suggested, rather than to the board.

In addition, the Democratic incumbent, Richard F. Celeste, has argued that the governor should appoint the board.

But Mr. Celeste is ineligible for re-election, and the Democratic candidate, Anthony J. Celebrezze, has defended the current system of electing the board as the best way to ensure its accountability.

In Kansas, two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the legislature last spring voted for an amendment eliminating language in the constitution that gives "general supervision" over precollegiate education to an elected board. If the language is removed, the legislature would have a free hand to curb the board's powers or abolish it entirely.

Voter Resistance

But efforts to curb state boards' authority or end their elective status are likely to face considerable opposition both from lawmakers and the voters. Measures similar to the proposed Kansas amendment, for example, have been defeated by voters there twice before.

In West Virginia, voters last fall soundly defeated an amendment that would have ended the constitutional independence of the board and reconstituted it as a statutory entity subject to greater control by the governor and the legislature.

In addition, proposals to amend the constitutions of Nebraska and Utah to eliminate the state board died in legislative committees in 1988.

Mr. Wilhoit of nasbe predicted that change in the structure or authority of state boards is likely to occur slowly, due largely to the resistance of voters to a loss of part of their power.

Where changes have occurred, Mr. Wilhoit said, they have been brought about primarily through legislative action and major upheavals in educational systems.

Such was the case in Kentucky, he noted, where the school-reform bill approved by the legislature this spring gave lawmakers more power over the board.

Vol. 09, Issue 40

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