Wayne G. Sanstead is on a mission on this windy April morning here, as he makes his way through the Capitol to check on the education bills being debated late in the legislative session.
Such jaunts, however urgent, are rarely direct and uninterrupted for North Dakota’s gregarious superintendent of public instruction. On his way to the House, he waves to acquaintances, shakes hands with longtime legislators, and chats casually with colleagues and other state employees.
Mr. Sanstead, currently the nation’s longest-serving state schools chief, has become a familiar figure outside the halls of state government as well. At restaurants and even gas stations around the state he is often greeted earnestly by passersby. At school events, students tend to huddle close to him with a smile or whispered confidence.
After nearly 40 years in elected office—eight as lieutenant governor, eight as a state representative, two as a state senator, and more than 24 as schools chief—Mr. Sanstead has formed an enviable bond with voters and schoolchildren throughout the Peace Garden State.
But in the wake of the most challenging election of his storied career last fall, the brisk 70-year-old has drawn increasing criticism from teachers and administrators for failing, they say, to connect similarly with them.
“He’s a politician; … he knows how to get elected,” said Larry Klundt, who has served as the executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders for 18 years. “A lot of [the contention between Mr. Sanstead and the state’s educators] comes from a lack of communication, department officials not seeking input from the field, and when they get it, not accepting it.”
Several North Dakota educator groups that have been allies in the past refused to support Mr. Sanstead, a Democrat, in his re-election campaign for a sixth term. The incumbent’s plans for expediting consolidation of the state’s small school districts, as well as his policy proposals for meeting the teacher-quality provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, angered educators around the state.
The rift began with Mr. Sanstead’s support of increased testing measures for teachers—novice and veteran alike—and his agreement with federal officials that the state’s elementary-level teaching certificate was not rigorous enough.
Legislators also were displeased by the state education department’s implementation plans for the 3-year-old federal law, which contains a host of mandates meant to spur greater state and local accountability for educational results. Critics quickly united to dispute the department’s interpretation.
“There is some distrust between schools and the department of public instruction’s interpretation of the No Child Left Behind law, and that’s in the legislature as well,” said Rep. Gil Herbel, a Republican and former teacher who is on the House education committee. As a result, lawmakers formed a separate committee to monitor the law’s implementation.
The confident state superintendent has been unapologetic, saying he has simply been taking the heat for enforcing the federal requirements in a way that best serves North Dakota’s 99,000 public school students.
Teachers and state lawmakers jointly declared victory in February when the U.S. Department of Education announced it would honor the elementary certificate as sufficient for meeting the “highly qualified” teacher standard in the NCLB law.
Mr. Sanstead is not alone among state schools chiefs in having trouble maintaining the support of teachers’ unions and other powerful education groups.
Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction, Terry Bergeson, lost the endorsement of the Washington Education Association heading into last November’s election because of her support for charter school legislation. A similar stance on charter schools led to a rift between Michigan schools chief Thomas D. Watkins Jr. and the Michigan Education Association. Mr. Watkins resigned in January after a disagreement between the governor and the state board of education over the effectiveness of his leadership. (“Mich. Chief Steps Down, Looks Ahead,” Feb. 9, 2005.)
In North Dakota, Mr. Sanstead was left shaken after losing the educators’ support and the endorsement of the state Democratic Party last year as the race for state superintendent heated up.
But his flair for campaigning—demonstrated last summer in endless appearances at church dinners, parades, and community celebrations—helped him pull ahead of Keith Jacobson, the Republican high school principal who challenged him. Mr. Sanstead won with 60 percent of the vote, the same as in 2000.
He’s not always inspired such discord.
Years ago, Mr. Sanstead had an easy relationship with educators, due in part to his own classroom experience. Throughout much of his tenure as lieutenant governor, from 1973 to 1981, he worked full time as a debate and government teacher at Minot High School, two hours north of Bismarck.
As state schools chief, moreover, he has pushed for increased teacher salaries.
The cluttered walls of his office display awards gathered over the years from state and national teacher organizations, as well as photos of himself—featuring his trademark grin—with teachers, students, state officials, and the many dignitaries and celebrities he’s met.
Mr. Sanstead’s front-line education experience has served him well in state politics, where he draws on his nearly two decades as a teacher and forensics coach to strengthen his arguments or dissect and dismiss opposing views.
While he seems to savor the limelight, the politics, and the discourse, Mr. Sanstead returns to the classroom each month when time allows to teach lessons to 1st graders or honor top high school students. His wife of 48 years, Mary Jane, often drives him on those distant visits while he catches up on work in the passenger’s seat.
“I miss the classroom most of all,” Mr. Sanstead said. “That’s why I like to teach so much.”
Those visits, and the rare breaks from work—when he collects stamps, takes his two grandchildren on weekend excursions, or tackles the stacks of books that line walls and tables throughout his house—tend to refocus his perspective.
During the tough stretches, though, the tall, silver-haired dean of state superintendents tends to take things in stride.
“He is a voice of moderation,” said Michael E. Ward, a former North Carolina schools chief who served with Mr. Sanstead on the board of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the major group representing the nation’s state superintendents and commissioners of education. “When emotions run a little too high over current policy debates, … he speaks of wisdom born of significant experience.”
But on occasions when even his experience is put to the test, Mr. Sanstead tends to find other ways to inspire, such as in the endless anecdotes he’s gathered. His favorite, he says, is that of a 5th grade girl at a school in central North Dakota who became embarrassed at the silly behavior of her classmates during one of the superintendent’s visits.
She apologized for them, as Mr. Sanstead recalls, composed herself, and took his hand. “Don’t worry, Doctor Sanstead,” she said. “We’ll get through this.”
Mr. Sanstead summons those words again and again. “That’s my message now on NCLB or anything else that comes our way,” he said. “Don’t worry; we’ll get through this.”