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When Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire announced recently that she wants to take control of education policy in her state by creating a new, Cabinet-level schools position that answers to her, she set the stage for a political fight—and revived a perennial debate.
Governors, elected state schools chiefs, and, to some extent, state boards of education, have wrestled for years over who should shape the direction of teaching and learning in their states. In particular, governors have argued that they need more authority in order to marshal the various state education offices and boards in support of more unified and coherent plans to improve schools.
Whether last November’s election, which produced major turnover in governors’ and state legislative offices, foreshadows a significant number of education leadership shake-ups nationwide remains unclear. But some newly elected and returning governors have signaled movement in that direction.
Ms. Gregoire, for instance, envisions creating a new department of education led by a Cabinet-level secretary who answers to her and oversees state education divisions and departments from early childhood through college.
In California, newly elected Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has decided to eliminate the position of education secretary within his administration, arguing that doing so will save money and reduce duplication in his deficit-laden state. (“Early Moves Boost California Governor’s Policy Influence,” Jan. 19, 2011.)
Fellow Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon, also newly elected, is considering making a proposal to have the state create an appointed education secretary post and possibly phase out the current, elected schools chief after her term expires, his aides say.
Governors are trying “to have a strong voice” on school issues, said the Kathy Christie, chief of staff at the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research organization based in Denver. “It drives the economy. It drives everything.”
Ms. Gregoire, a Democrat who was re-elected in 2008, said she favors keeping the current, elected position of state schools chief. But she wants that officeholder to work under the direction of an education secretary she would appoint, a move that she argues will help Washington forge a more coherent education policy.
“We do not have an education system—we have a collection of agencies that deal with the subject of education,” she told reporters, in announcing her proposal this month. “Their focus is obviously not the same because each of them is a silo, responsible for a silo in the life of a child’s education.”
Education is feeling the pinch as state budgets tighten nationwide. Read what the governors plan for education funding and reform in 2011 in our State of the State and budget address roundups.
But Ms. Gregoire’s plan has been strongly criticized by the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction, Randy Dorn, who said the governor’s proposal was about power, not improving education. He described it as a distraction from the state’s priorities, which include increasing funding for K-12 schools.
“I answer to the people, not to a secretary of education,” Mr. Dorn said in an interview. “Are you going to try to subvert and limit an elected official’s power? I think you have to go to the people” to make those kinds of changes in leadership, he said.
Mr. Dorn, a former teacher, principal, and Democratic state lawmaker, was elected to the nonpartisan superintendent’s post in 2008. He argues that the governor’s proposal would require a change to Washington’s state constitution. Ms. Gregoire insists it would not, because she would keep the elected school chief’s office, thus avoiding constitutional entanglements.
Washington is one of 14 states where the state schools chief is elected, the ECS says. Twelve states have schools chiefs who are appointed by the governor, an increase from nine in 1992, the ECS says.
But the arrangement proposed by Gov. Gregoire, in which an elected state schools chief would answer to the governor’s appointed education secretary, would be highly unusual, said Ms. Christie of the ECS. Only a handful of states have both an education secretary appointed by the governor and a separate state schools chief who is either appointed by the governor, or by the state board of education, or elected, as has been the case in California.
The biggest barriers that governors face in making governance changes are typically legal and political, Ms. Christie said. State constitutions or laws often protect elected schools chief’s positions or define their duties, and governors sometimes have met resistance from legislators who balk at the proposed power shifts.
Appointing an education secretary could also appeal to governors, like Ms. Gregoire, who are trying to fashion more streamlined education systems from preschool through college and believe they need to cut through government bureaucracy to reach that goal, Ms. Christie added.
Money, Power Struggles
Struggles to shape education policy also are to be expected, given the large amount of money that states devote to K-12, said Jim Rex, who recently stepped down as South Carolina’s elected state superintendent of education. Governors typically argue that if they can serve as a sort of “CEO” over education, that makes them more accountable for improving schools, said Mr. Rex, who doesn’t buy that argument.
“There’s a strong argument that the most direct accountability is to have the [state schools chief] be an elected person,” Mr. Rex said. He chose not to seek another term as schools chief, and instead made an unsuccessful bid for his party’s nomination for governor.
Mr. Rex also questioned the practicality of having an appointed education secretary and an elected schools chief, as Gov. Gregoire proposes. If those two officials have competing priorities, each could accuse the other of hampering the state’s academic progress, he noted.
In California, Gov. Brown has said that having an education secretary in his office is unnecessary, because he plans to work directly on school policy with his state’s board of education and the state’s elected, nonpartisan state schools chief, currently Tom Torlakson. While other governors have filled the position, Mr. Brown didn’t have an education secretary during his previous tenure in office, from 1975 to 1983, said spokesman Evan Westrup.
Mr. Brown has also depicted cutting the secretary’s job and its staff as one sign of his commitment to reining in spending in California; he wants to cut $12.5 billion from the budget of his cash-strapped state, which has a proposed general fund of $85 billion.
In Oregon, Gov. Kitzhaber would like to be able to appoint an education secretary, said his education adviser, Nancy L. Golden. Oregon has an elected state superintendent of public instruction, Susan Castillo, but the governor is considering a number of options, including asking lawmakers to phase out that elected position after Ms. Castillo’s term ends, Ms. Golden said.
Like Gov. Gregoire in Washington, Mr. Kitzhaber, who previously served as governor from 1995 to 2003, wants to create a more seamless education system from birth to the workforce, and he thinks an appointed education secretary could help that process, his aide said.
Ms. Castillo, whose post is nonpartisan, favors keeping a stand-alone elected office over schools, now and in the future, said her spokeswoman, Susanne Smith.
The schools chief “believes it’s important for the citizens to have a direct voice on education,” Ms. Smith said. “If the position is appointed, it becomes one of just many issues under the governor’s purview.”
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Governors’ Sights May Be Zeroing In on Policy Levers