School & District Management

Indiana Urged To Switch To Appointed State Schools Chief

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 14, 2001 3 min read
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A comprehensive evaluation of Indiana’s education system by two national associations urges the state to do away with its elected chief state school officer in favor of a schools chief appointed by the state board of education.

Under the current system, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction— Suellen K. Reed, a Republican—is elected by voters. The members of the state’s board of education are appointed by the governor, currently Frank L. O’Bannon, a Democrat.

By most accounts, Ms. Reed and Mr. O’Bannon, while from opposite parties, have worked well together to improve education for Indiana’s schoolchildren.

But the fact the state school chief has to raise money, run a campaign, and then push a political agenda once in office detracts from the goals of improving education, said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education, one of the two organizations commissioned to conduct the evaluation.

The state schools chief “should be hired based on criteria set out on what [he or she] can do to improve and enhance education in the state and be evaluated on that just like any good superintendent or principal should be,” Ms. Welburn said.

The two associations conducted research for their review over the last year, when both Mr. O’Bannon and Ms. Reed were running for re-election, she said. Researchers found that Indiana voters were talking more about the politics of Ms. Reed’s campaign than education issues, she said.

“Currently the state governor and superintendent get along well and have been able to accomplish a lot,” added Dane Linn, the director of the education policy studies division of the Washington-based National Governors’ Association, which helped conduct the evaluation. “That’s not sustainable over time.”

Not a Surprise

Ms. Reed was unavailable for comment last week. But Mary M. Tiede Wilhelmus, a state department of education spokeswoman, said it was no surprise that the evaluation included such a recommendation. She said it reflects the position of the organizations commissioned to conduct the evaluation.

“If you were to call the National Governors’ Association on any given day and ask would their membership prefer to have an elected or appointed chief state school officer, I’d say they’d want to have an appointed chief state school officer. It’s their position, Sunday through Saturday,” Ms. Wilhelmus said.

The associations’ evaluation also recommends that the state hire more education department staff and establish a set of education goals. Ms. Wilhelmus said the state education board already is in the process of setting goals. “We’re already ... acting on most of what was said,” she added.

While everyone is calling the evaluation a “draft,” and only an executive summary was released last week, just how much the final evaluation will change is subject to debate.

Ms. Wilhelmus said the evaluation’s findings won’t change, but it’s unclear if the recommendations will. A draft of the evaluation was presented to the state board last week, and its members are scheduled to meet again on Feb. 19 to provide input for the final version.

Mr. Linn of NGA said, however, “The findings and the recommendations are not changing.”

State legislators would have to change Indiana’s constitution in order to alter how the state schools chief is selected, Ms. Wilhelmus said. The legislature called for the evaluation of the state’s education system in 1999 legislation. The NGA, NASBE, and an accounting firm were commissioned to carry it out after responding to a request for a proposal from the board of education.

Two Indiana legislators disagreed last week on whether the state should move toward having an appointed state schools chief.

“I would admit there are some inherent problems with the system the way we have it now,” said Robert W. Behning, a Republican on the education committee of Indiana’s House of Representatives.

He said the state superintendent currently “has her hands tied” because board of education members are appointed by someone from an opposite party. Either the state superintendent should have the power to appoint the board, and thus have philosophical control of it, or the governor should have the power to appoint the superintendent, he said.

But Billie J. Breaux, a Democrat on the state Senate’s education committee, said the process shouldn’t be changed. “When you’re elected by the people,” she said, “you have more [allegiance] to the people and not just to one administration or one person.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Indiana Urged To Switch To Appointed State Schools Chief

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