State Schools Chiefs: Who's Elected, Who's Not, and Races to Watch This Year

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a candidate for California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, appears at a candidates debate in Sacramento.
Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a candidate for California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, appears at a candidates debate in Sacramento.
—Rich Pedroncelli/AP
| Corrected: October 9, 2018
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More than half of the nation's 13 elected state superintendent positions are up for grabs this fall.

But in South Carolina this year, there's a twist: As voters go to the polls to vote on their new state chief, they'll also decide whether the general public—or the state's governor—is best fit to select who should be in charge of improving the state's schools.

The ballot question to make the chief's job an appointed one as of 2023 was initiated by the state's Republican-dominated legislature and is an effort to consolidate power over the state's academically struggling public school system which has been plagued by a widespread teacher shortage.

The South Carolina debate is illustrative of the increasing responsibilities, visibility, and political pressures state chiefs across the nation face.

"You can't have two competing agendas with two different offices with two competing views," said South Carolina House Representative Bill Taylor, a Republican who sits on the state's education committee and opposes having two separate elected officials pulling the strings on education policy.

Ballot Watch

Voters in seven states will pick state school superintendents in November, out of 13 that elect their state chiefs overall. And in one state—South Carolina—voters will also decide whether, in the future, the state superintendent should be appointed by the governor.

Current Races

Arizona

  • Kathy Hoffman (D): Speech pathologist, Peoria, Ariz., school district
  • Frank Riggs (R): Former congressman, now a charter school executive

California (non-partisan)

  • Marshall Tuck: Former president of Green Dot Public Schools, a national network of charter schools; founding CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which operates 18 elementary, middle, and high schools
  • Tony Thurmond: Democratic state legislator, former social worker, local school board member, and Richmond city council member

Georgia

  • Otha Thornton (D): Military contractor, former president National PTA
  • Richard Woods (R)*: Former teacher and principal

Idaho

  • Cindy Wilson(D): High school government teacher
  • Sherri Ybarra (R)*: Former teacher, principal and district administrator

Oklahoma

  • John Cox (D): Superintendent of Peggs public school district
  • Joy Hofmeister (R)*: Former elementary school teacher
  • Larry Huff (I): State education department director, college professor

South Carolina

  • Israel Romero (D): Former special education and Spanish high school teacher and former educational administration professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts
  • Molly Spearman (R)*: Former music teacher, assistant principal and state legislator

Wyoming

  • Jillian Balow (R)*: Former teacher, Unopposed

*Incumbent

But those opposed to the ballot measure say it will dilute citizens' input and fails to address broader problems, such as the state's uneven funding of public schools.

"It's just a Band-Aid, it really doesn't fix anything," said John Scott, a Democratic member of the state's Senate. If the measure passes, "Whoever the governor is—and whatever their agenda is—is going to be the agenda of the day, and that could cripple the school system even more."

Nationally, there's been a major shake up in recent years over who's in charge of education policy in states, sparked in part by the federal government's 2015 decision under the Every Student Succeeds Act to concede much of its oversight of states' accountability systems and learning standards.

Legislatures in recent years have slashed away at the rights of state boards of education, and dozens of state superintendents have either been forced to resign or have been outright fired over disagreements regarding state policy. The average tenure of state superintendents today is a little more than two years.

"State chiefs in the last five years have played a more outward-facing role in helping set the direction of states' overall education vision," said Carissa Moffat Miller, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Shifting Sands

Just 13 states still elect their state chiefs, down from 33 states which did so a century ago when state departments were first established as data clearinghouses for states. (Florida and Mississippi also still elect some district superintendents.)

What was once seen as a pillar of education governance—letting the people directly decide who they want to oversee their public schools—has increasingly come to be seen among political consultants as one of the root causes of political infighting and diffuse school improvement strategies.

Arizona's elected state chief Diane Douglas, who campaigned in 2014 to rid the state of the Common Core State Standards, spent the majority of her tenure bickering with the governor and his appointed state board over who in the state department reports to whom, at one point bringing state policymaking to a standstill. She was recently ousted in the Republican primary.

North Carolina's state chief Mark Johnson, elected in 2016, has been caught up in a legal feud with the state board over which political body has power over their state-run district, and other critical responsibilities.

States With Elected School Superintendents

Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

Wisconsin's elected state chief Tony Evers, a Democrat, spent much of his eight years in office sparring with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the state's Republican-dominated legislature over the budget, interpretation of several teacher improvement and school accountability policies, and their state's ESSA plan. Evers is now in the running to unseat Walker.

And just last week, Indiana's elected superintendent of public instruction, Jennifer McCormick, said she won't run for re-election in 2020 after months of arguing with her state's board of education over how the state will hold its schools accountable. That debate culminated in the state's school districts answering to two separate accountability systems this year.

The state's legislature decided in 2017 to make the state chief appointed rather than elected, but the legislature in recent months has wavered on when exactly the transition will happen.

"The government structure in Indiana is quite difficult," McCormick said. "It causes confusion, and it stretches resources, but I also understand the power of having the citizens' voice in education since public schools consume over 50 percent of the state budget."

A 2013 study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank based at University of Washington Bothell, found that amid mass department layoffs during the Great Recession, elected state chiefs were much less aggressive in restructuring their organizations or challenging their relationships with local districts than more politically insulated appointed state chiefs. But there's little research that shows that one governance model delivers better academic results than another.

Campaign Issues

Candidates in this year's seven state superintendent races have debated issues including the role of charter schools, how states distribute money among their schools, and teacher recruitment and retention. Some of those races have attracted an extraordinary amount of attention and money—California's nonpartisan superintendent's race between Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond, for example, is the most expensive race in the state this year, with the candidates raising a combined total of $20 million.

Marshall Tuck, a former charters schools executive who is a candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, appears at a candidates debate in Sacramento, Calif.
Marshall Tuck, a former charters schools executive who is a candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, appears at a candidates debate in Sacramento, Calif.
—Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In South Carolina, Molly Spearman is competing on the Republican ticket against Democrat Israel Romero, a writer and former educator.

If the ballot measure to appoint state superintendent passes this November, the governor beginning in 2023 will recommend to the Senate a state chief to oversee the department based on a series of new—and higher—qualifications set by the legislature. The state only requires candidates for state chief to be 18 years old to run for that position. A law passed this past spring would require any governor-appointed state superintendent to have a minimum of a master's degree and substantive and broad-based experience in the field of public education.

Whether or not to have their state chief elected has been debated in South Carolina's political circles for more than half a century, but took on steam in the last decade after Republicans took over the statehouse in 2003 and began handing over more power to the governor, which historically has been a weak position in the state.

Today, Spearman runs a department of more than 1,000 employees, directly runs three underperforming and financially struggling school districts, and this year rolled out a new accountability system that requires the state to collect plenty more data.

Despite those increased responsibilities, Spearman doesn't sit on Republican Gov. Henry McMaster's cabinet. That, Spearman said, creates logistical hurdles and bureaucratic headaches. Every year, for example, the legislature considers a budget crafted by the governor's staff and one crafted by the superintendent's staff.

In 2016, Spearman authored a joint letter with then-Gov. Nikki Haley urging the Senate to make the state superintendent position appointed rather than elected.

"Instead of moving the state forward with a common vision for education priorities, this divided leadership structure can result in incompatible positions, a lack of coordination and fragmented accountability for failures in our Pre K-12 education system," Haley and Spearman wrote.

Related Blog

The legislature's bill to place the question on the ballot passed this past spring with just six senators voting against it.

In a recent interview, Spearman said the increased duties of the state chief, combined with the necessary campaigning and low pay is likely to make it hard to attract qualified candidates to the job.

Nationally, elected state chiefs are paid on average $115,000, significantly less than board-appointed state chiefs who make on average $223,000, according to an Education Week analysis. South Carolina's chief makes $92,000 a year.

"It's very difficult to find very high-quality, highly trained educators or business folks who are willing to run in statewide elections," she said.

Vol. 38, Issue 08, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: October 10, 2018, as Election Puts Spotlight on Precarious Position of State Superintendents
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Correction: 
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the membership status of Indiana’s state school board; it members are appointed by the governor. The article also incorrectly stated the current qualifications for those running for South Carolina state schools superintendent; a candidate need only be 18 years old to run for that position.

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