School & District Management

Governors Face Political Hurdles in Seeking Power to Appoint Chiefs

By Michele McNeil — January 22, 2008 6 min read
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Convinced of the connection between the quality of their schools and the future of their states—not to mention their own political reputations—some governors are seeking a bigger role in shaping education policy by grabbing for more control over their state schools chiefs.

In Maryland, first-term Gov. Martin O’Malley is demanding that the longtime appointed chief step down so he can work with his own superintendent. In Massachusetts, another first-termer, Gov. Deval Patrick, wants to create a powerful education secretary’s job in his Cabinet. And in Indiana and South Carolina, where the chiefs are elected, debates swirl over whether the governor should instead pick the superintendent.

Both sides offer compelling arguments. Governors note that they are responsible for managing state budgets, of which half typically is devoted to public schools, and say that they take the political heat on education. Governors also argue that school quality is an economic-development issue, and that their influence in that vital area is limited if they can’t pick the state chief.

But those who argue for an independent schools chief say that improving education is a long-term process that can’t be confined to a particular governor’s term, and that schools must be insulated as much as possible from politics.

And tradition—or inertia—may play a role in the debate. Often, the method of a chief’s selection is rooted in decisions state policymakers made a century or more ago; in Indiana, the issue was mentioned in a speech to the 1851 constitutional convention.

The question is so politically dicey that the Council of Chief State School Officers—the Washington-based group that represents state education chiefs, appointed and elected alike—won’t talk about it.

Nor have these governance relationships and how they relate to policy and student outcomes been studied at length since the 1970s, said Paul Manna, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va.

“Governors have said, ‘We want more control,’ ” said Mr. Manna, who is researching the topic. “But nobody has really checked to see if that makes a difference.”

Politicizing Education?

Maryland is now the site of what may be the nation’s fiercest tug of war between a governor and a state schools chief.

Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, first appointed by the state board of education in 1991, is refusing to step down despite demands from Gov. O’Malley, who took office a year ago and says he wants his own education chief. Now, Mr. O’Malley—a Democrat in a state where Democrats control both houses of the legislature—wants to change the law to give the governor control over the chief’s appointment.

“That would be a huge mistake,” Ms. Grasmick, whose contract was extended to 2010 by the state board, seven months before it was to expire, said in an interview last week. “[Education reform] takes sustainability. It transcends the tenure of a governor.”

Choosing the Chiefs

Only about a quarter of the nation’s chief state school officers are elected by a statewide vote, and five will be on the ballot this year. The rest of the country’s chiefs are appointed.

Note: Alaska and Vermont also require governor’s approval. In the District of Columbia, the mayor appoints both a state superintendent of education and a schools chancellor.


SOURCES: Council of Chief State School Officers; Education Week.

The feud dates to 2006, when Ms. Grasmick attempted, though failed, to take over some failing public schools in Baltimore, where Mr. O’Malley was then mayor. The state board that reappointed Ms. Grasmick includes several members who were appointed by Gov. O’Malley’s Republican predecessor.

Ms. Grasmick said that a superintendent who is not under the thumb of a state’s governor can shoulder controversy the governor may not want to attract.

Although Gov. O’Malley’s office did not respond to requests for comment, the governor told a Baltimore radio talk show on Jan. 9: “I believe that those of us who have that public trust should be willing to be accountable and be responsible for [education].”

“We should not politicize education,” he added.

But the political situation in Maryland is worrisome, said Kathy Christie, a vice president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “That’s not how decisions should be made,” she said. “These decisions must sustain—you have to think of who’s going to be governor next, too.”

Getting politics out of education has been a long-standing concern in Maryland. According to research provided by the state department of education, the legislature changed to a board-appointed superintendent in 1916, when outside experts deemed the system in effect at that time—an education chief appointed by the governor—“infested with partisan politics.”

Nationally, 13 state schools chiefs are appointed directly by their governors, while 14 are elected by a statewide vote—some by party label, others on a nonpartisan basis.

The rest are appointed by their state boards of education; that can be a complex process because board members may be separately elected themselves, or appointed by a combination of lawmakers and the governor.

Making a fundamental switch in how state chiefs are chosen is tough.

Attempts to change the state constitutions in Indiana and South Carolina to replace elected chiefs with gubernatorial appointees have so far failed.

New Mexico is an exception. It successfully converted from an elected to a governor-appointed chief in 2004.

Governors use the theme of accountability to bolster their case.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Patrick, a Democrat, will push legislation to establish a new Cabinet-level education secretary who would have “real authority” to create mission statements, manage K-12 education and capital budgets, and approve the education commissioner appointed by the state board of education.

“Assuming responsibility without authority is a formula for a failure,” Gov. Patrick said in a Jan. 10 speech.

That argument has been echoed in Indiana, most recently by Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican who was elected in 2004 and whose campaign platform included making the state chief an appointed, not an elected, position. So far, he’s been unsuccessful.

Even Indiana’s elected chief, Republican Suellen K. Reed, who is running this year for re-election to a fifth term, can see the other side of the argument.

“Governors have sought to extend their influence. I can understand why,” said Ms. Reed, who doesn’t oppose a switch to an appointed chief so long as voters want it. “Whatever happens happens on [the governor’s] watch.”

Value of Elections

This year, five of the elected chiefs’ seats will be on state ballots. Indiana’s Ms. Reed, North Carolina Democrat June Atkinson, and Washington state’s Terry Bergeson, who runs on a nonpartisan basis, are running for re-election. In Montana, the office will be open because Democrat Linda McCulloch is term-limited.

The nation’s longest-serving elected chief, North Dakota’s Wayne G. Sanstead, said in an interview that although he’s leaning toward running again, he won’t decide until next month.

In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, pushed last year for a constitutional change to make some elected positions, including the superintendent of education, appointed. The idea didn’t get much traction in the legislature, though it remains a priority for him.

South Carolina’s first-term superintendent of education, James Rex, a Democrat, said he was ambivalent about the idea before he ran for the office. But now, he said, he’s a believer in keeping it an elected position.

“When there’s an appointment, it’s a press release on a single day. That’s it,” he said. “But when there’s an election, it forces our state to have a discussion looking at where we are in public education and where we need to go. For South Carolina, it’s necessary we have that discussion.”

In North Dakota, which has a populist attitude toward government and elects everyone from tax commissioners to the state schools chief, policymakers have discussed changing the way the superintendent is chosen, Mr. Sanstead said, but with no success.

“This way, I can tackle the controversial issues. I’ve taken on many a governor,” said Mr. Sanstead, who first took office 1985. “Not all chiefs can say that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week


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