School & District Management

At State Level, Power Over Schools a Contentious Issue

October 12, 2009 8 min read
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Shortly after taking office in January, North Carolina Gov. Beverly E. Perdue set in motion plans to restructure governance of the state’s K-12 education system. As part of the effort, she pushed for the creation of a chief executive officer to oversee the state department of public instruction, and her hand-picked candidate assumed the job.

The trouble was, North Carolina voters had just elected June Atkinson to a second term as the state schools chief. And while the authority of the elected post had been greatly diminished for years, Atkinson challenged the governor’s efforts in court as encroaching on her constitutionally defined role.

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This past summer, the state superintendent won her case.

The debate in North Carolina certainly wasn’t the first—and won’t be the last—tussle over who’s in charge of education at the state level. The stakes keep getting higher, as pressure for education improvement continues and as states vie for money that will be distributed by the U.S. Department of Education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

An August letter from the National Governors Association signaled the tension over state governance of K-12 education. In the NGA’s comments on draft guidelines for the federal Education Department’s $4 billion Race to the Top Fund, part of the economic-stimulus law, the group said some governors objected to a requirement that each state’s application be endorsed by the president of the state board of education. That could “limit gubernatorial prerogatives,” the NGA wrote.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, says that governors have long sought to wrest greater authority from state superintendents and boards of education.

“It’s like a one-way vector force, where there’s continual force for governors to gain control of education policy,” he says. “The governors are on the offense, and the people supporting traditional arrangements where education should be separately governed ... are on the defense.”

Governors Seek Influence

Governors, he notes, have pursued both direct and indirect paths to increase their reach in K-12 schooling and beyond. Over the past several years, some governors have seen their influence grow as a result of their active involvement in state P-16 or P-20 councils, he said. Those panels, now in place in most states, bring together actors from various levels of education, preschool to college to graduate study, and often include representatives from state government, business, and the community.

Last year, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick strengthened his hand through several changes, most notably the creation of a Cabinet-level position of secretary of education appointed by him.

In Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland sought legislation in 2008 aimed at enhancing his office’s influence and making the roles of the state superintendent and board of education largely advisory. Although his plan was not enacted, the effort was widely seen as leading to the resignation of the state’s longtime schools chief.

Selecting Chief School Officers

The most common method is for state boards of education to appoint the top education official.


SOURCE: Council of Chief State School Oficers

The lines of authority for education at the state level vary nationwide. Whatever the extent of governors’ other executive powers, many state constitutions established separate governance structures for the K-12 school system.

To be sure, analysts say, governors may well have some good reasons to want more authority in the K-12 arena.

“Governors are probably correct when they say people look to them as the leader of a state’s education system, ... whether they actually have real power or not,” says Paul Manna, an associate professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va.

On the flip side, having some level of independence in state governance structures is often touted as a way to help depoliticize decisionmaking.

David P. Driscoll, who stepped down in 2007 as the Massachusetts commissioner of education, says he sympathizes with governors’ desire for more control, but suggests an independent commissioner or board can foster “positive tension.”

“It’s good to get things done,” he says, “but on the other hand, a little difference of opinion can often be a positive thing.”

Governance at a Glance

States use a variety of methods for determining who will serve on the state board of education, how many members it will have, and how the leadership of the panel will be selected.


SOURCE: National Association of State Boards of Education

In North Carolina, the governance debate has been going on for decades.

A 2009 report by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a think tank in Raleigh, says the system is widely seen as “a ‘four-headed’ monster with unclear and sometimes confusing lines of authority” between the elected state superintendent, the chair of the state board, the governor’s office, and the deputy superintendent.

Gov. Perdue, a Democrat, tried to take on the matter this year. She signed legislation allowing an education department employee to also serve on the state board. She appointed to the state board Bill Harrison, a longtime local superintendent. Finally, she successfully pressed the board to both elect Harrison as its chairman and hire him as the CEO of the education department.

Chrissy Pearson, the governor’s press secretary, says the existing state structure “made it difficult for the school system to enjoy a clear line of accountability directly to the governor. ... She feels like the buck stops with her when it comes to education.”

But in a lawsuit in state superior court, Superintendent Atkinson successfully argued that the role given to the new CEO was one the state constitution reserved for the elected superintendent. Harrison has since resigned as CEO, but remains the chairman of the state board.

Changes in Massachusetts

Meanwhile, Gov. Patrick of Massachusetts won strong legislative backing last year for his reorganization plan, which created an executive office of education with a Cabinet-level secretary appointed by the governor to oversee three education departments. The secretary, S. Paul Reville, is a member of the state boards for early education and care, elementary and secondary education, and higher education, and has approval authority over the boards’ hiring of commissioners for each agency and of each agency’s budget.

Patrick, a Democrat, told legislators in January 2008 that his plans would improve coordination across all sectors of education and create “a single responsible authority within the coordinated system” to serve as a “chief liaison” to his office. “We will be able to take swift, synchronized actions, to meet the rapidly evolving demands of the world and economy,” he said.

Related changes to the makeup of the board of elementary and secondary education, including expanding it from nine to 11 members, accelerated the process of having a majority of board members appointed by the governor, observers say.

Jamie Gass, the director of the center for school reform at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank, argues that the changes have greatly diminished the independence of both the K-12 commissioner and the state board. He also suggests the state board’s influence has waned.

“The board has really become a theater without an audience,” he says. “It’s mostly ceremonial.”

Gass points to a recent controversy over the state’s consideration of an application to open a new charter school as reinforcing his skepticism about the new governance structure.

In an e-mail made public in September by a Massachusetts newspaper, Reville urged the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Mitchell D. Chester, earlier this year to back the application for what looked to be political reasons.

“What it highlights is precisely the kind of concerns we had about the process being drawn more closely into the governor’s office,” Gass says. “In a way, it’s an example of how governance has been politicized.”

But in an interview, Reville said that the e-mail was taken out of context and that he was by no means suggesting political calculation should trump the merits of the application. More broadly, Reville argues that under the governance changes, the state board continues to have a “powerful influence,” and that Chester is an independent actor.

“The commissioner does not work for me,” he said, “he works for the board.”

‘We Should Have Authority’

In Ohio, Gov. Strickland used his 2008 State of the State address to unveil plans to create a “director” post at the state department of education, appointed by him, with “oversight over all [the agency’s] efforts,” he said. At the same time, the role of the state superintendent and the state board of education would become largely advisory.

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The sixth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the school board’s role in education leadership.
Click here to read the full report.

“The voters will rightly hold us accountable for the education results we produce,” he told lawmakers at the time. “Therefore, we should have authority over the management of the department of education.”

“Governor Strickland came in, and he had his own agenda and wanted his own people to help push it through,” says Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

The legislature did not adopt the governor’s restructuring plans, but his efforts were widely seen as leading Susan Tave Zelman, who was appointed Ohio’s superintendent by the state education board in 1999, to step down last year. And the board apparently worked with Strickland to name a successor, Deborah S. Delisle, more to his liking.

The governor, a Democrat, has made headway with plans to revamp the K-12 system. He worked with the legislature to overhaul the state’s school funding approach and lay the groundwork for revisions to its standards, assessments, and accountability system.

As for Strickland’s proposed changes to state governance of education, Ryan says the governor appears to have gained enough influence to let the plan drop: “That’s just disappeared off the agenda.”

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as At State Level, Power Over Schools a Contentious Issue


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