Governors Seeking Levers To Improve Education

By Mark Stricherz — March 28, 2001 15 min read
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In Florida, it’s not only the methods of casting and counting ballots that strike some people as inequitable, inconsistent, and downright odd. Just look, observers say, at how the state’s public school system is run.

The Sunshine State has five of the 15 biggest school districts in the country— and several districts that have fewer students than one high school in Miami. A high school arts class counts for admission to some state universities, but not others. And Katherine Harris, the secretary of state who became famous in Florida’s 2000 presidential-election dispute, has a vote on the state board of education that is equal to that of the governor or the education commissioner.

Starting in 2003, though, Sunshine State leaders hope to bring new order to their governance of schools. In a break with past practice, the governor will be able to appoint the state school board, which no longer will be composed of seven statewide elected officials, such as Ms. Harris.

The change in Florida is part of a larger shift over the years toward greater gubernatorial leadership in education. In many states, governors are being asked to bolster poor schools, set uniform education rules, and make the schools accountable for their performance—and some are seeking the levers to get those tasks done.

While Florida’s impending transition is the most concrete example, policymakers in Indiana, New Mexico, Oregon, and South Carolina also are weighing governance changes.

“It’s kind of easy to see why governors, if they’re going to be blamed for schools, want more powers,” observed Ted Sanders, the president of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit organization that helps state leaders understand education issues.

“I don’t think an elected education commissioner is something that John Q. or Jane Q. Public realizes is responsible when they wake up in the morning,” added Mr. Sanders, who served as the state schools chief in Illinois, Nevada, and Ohio.

Action Shifting

A growing number of policymakers are realizing that the action has shifted to the governors’ offices.

And governors are taking their demands for greater control to the halls of Congress. This year, the contest is over the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the central federal aid program for K-12 schools. At stake: $22 billion.

The National Governors’ Association wants the reauthorized act to say that federal education dollars “should be directed to the state, rather than a state agency selected by the federal government.”

Said Christine LaPaille, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based organization: “If the governors are going to be held accountable, they want the money.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers, the Washington group that represents the heads of state education agencies, opposes that plan. “If the state determines which agency is eligible for overseeing elementary and secondary education, then the federal government should direct funds to that agency,” said Gordon M. Ambach, the group’s executive director.

To be sure, governors have not gained dictatorial powers over schools. In most states, their authority is curbed by state boards of education, which act as buffers between them and the schools.

But state governance arrangements have changed markedly over the years. In 1930, for example, 33 of the nation’s 48 states had elected state schools chiefs; by 2003, only 14 of 50 will. In 1983, only five state schools superintendents were named by the governor; now, nine governors wield such authority.

In 26 states, the state board appoints the schools chief. A governor’s power can be curbed in other ways as well. The terms of state board members can be staggered, and members can be elected statewide.

Still, the trend toward giving governors more power over schools has been unmistakable. In 31 states, the governor names all the members of the state board; in four others, the governor appoints some of them.

School experts disagree on the exact reasons for the shift toward greater gubernatorial control, but trace its origins to the rise of “education governors” some 20 years ago.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, attributes most of the change to the deep recession of the early 1980s.

“What really led to it was the view that education was the key to economic growth,” Mr. Kirst said. “Jobs in manufacturing were disappearing, and people believed that human capital was the way to get out of the recession. If you’re a Southern governor at that time, it was pretty easy to conclude that education is the key to your state’s future.”

Among the governors seeking more power over schools were such later luminaries as Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina.

It was also natural that governors would want more control, Mr. Kirst observes, because public education takes the lion’s share of many states’ budgets. And many of the state executives believe they aren’t getting their money’s worth: It’s no coincidence that in most states where governors have gained more of a say in schools, children suffered from an array of social and academic ills.

The shift toward giving state-level officials more power over schools is recognizable in the new vocabulary that has sprung up around it. State leaders talk about a need for “aligning” curriculum and testing, “seamless delivery” of education, and “coherent” and “coordinated” policy—all goals to be accomplished from the top down.

‘No Authority’

Florida, meanwhile, alone among the states, has a state Cabinet made up of elected officials.

The Cabinet’s seven members, including the governor and the heads of banking and agriculture, wield enormous power. They sit on a total of 15 panels—overseeing everything from the state board of education to the Florida Land and Water Adjudictory Commission— and their votes count equally. Put into place after Reconstruction, the system was designed to limit the governor’s power, and it posed major hurdles to those wishing to change the arrangement. Only once every 20 years, when the state reviews its constitution, could voters seek to amend the constitution.

During the past 10 years, as business leaders, politicians, and the public became increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the public schools, the climate became ripe for change. In 1998, voters approved a constitutional amendment that will reorganize the governor’s Cabinet and allow him to appoint the state school board, starting next year.

Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who was then campaigning for election, was one among many of the state’s top politicians to endorse the amendment.

“All of the former governors had really been on this bandwagon,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa, “because all of them had been running as education governors, but they had no authority to be accountable.”

Few in Florida appear to mourn the passing of the current system.

“It’s an absolute nonsystem,” said R. Ray Goode, a senior executive with the Ryder rental-truck company who chaired the panel that recommended the governance change.

Like others, Mr. Goode objected to the “separate agendas” of the cabinet members.

“If I’m Bob Crawford, the secretary of agriculture, my first responsibility is for agriculture,” Mr. Goode said. “Why am I worried about education?”

The new system is designed to eliminate such infighting. The governor will appoint a seven-member board of education, subject to the legislature’s approval. The state board, in turn, will hire a commissioner of education. Currently, Florida’s schools chief is elected. But proponents of the change say they don’t view greater control by the governor as an end in itself. They see it as a means of making the state’s schools more uniform in terms of state funding, regulations, and academic programs.

Smoothing Inequities

Mr. Goode said a newly empowered governor could especially help increase funding for school construction, which now varies depending on a district’s wealth. He noted, for example, that the overcrowded 4,760-student Braddock Senior High School in Miami-Dade County has more students than the Gulf and Calhoun districts combined, which total just 4,408.

Others criticize the schools’ lack of uniformity on other grounds. The current system, they say, lacks standardized rules and regulations. Among those critics are members of a task force that is charged with making detailed recommendations to the state legislature on reshaping the kindergarten through graduate and professional school system.

F. Philip Handy, a businessman and a friend of Gov. Bush’s who chairs the education transition task force, took aim at the graduation requirements for high school students and aspiring teachers.

“The criteria for high school [graduation] aren’t necessarily what the state universities require,” he said. “Teacher education is not compatible with our K-12 schools system. We hired 10,000 teachers this year, and 7,000 of them came from out of state.”

Business interests have also expressed distaste for doing business with the schools. “When a school district wants to build a new school,” said Thomas N. Tompkins, the founder and chairman of the Osceola Education Foundation, an Osceola, Fla.-based organization that gives grants to schools, “it will take anywhere from six to 12 months before the school board approves it, even though it’s the same design that’s been used over 90 times before.”

Mr. Tompkins, who also sits on the transition task force, would like to see the governor set clear, consistent rules for the state’s 67 districts to follow.

Not all of the state’s major education players agree that the governor should have more say over its public schools.

Pat Tornillo, the executive director of the United Teachers of Dade, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, says the current governance system has given the teachers’ union “a greater opportunity for input” with the board of education. And, he said, “I think it gave the people of Florida a lot more say on education issues.”

‘800-Pound Gorilla’

Of the states considering governance changes, Oregon appears to be furthest along in moving toward giving the governor the power to appoint the state schools chief.

During the last legislative session,the Oregon Senate passed a bill to allow the governor to appoint the state superintendent. Though it failed in the House, Senate President Gene Derfler, a Republican, has reintroduced the legislation this year. The proposal has the support of Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, and was the focus of a Senate education committee hearing earlier this year.

The driving force for the bill is Oregon’s increasing reliance on state general revenues, rather than local property taxes, to pay for schools. In 1990, Oregon voters passed Ballot Measure 5, an initiative that sharply limited homeowners’ taxes.

The results were dramatic: The state pays for nearly three-quarters of all K-12 school spending—a sum that’s more than half the state’s $5.53 billion budget.

Proponents say the bill simply makes fiscal, and political, sense.

“Since the K-12 budget is the 800-pound gorilla of state finances, the governor can’t really balance the budget unless he has control of it,” said Norma Paulus, who was elected as Oregon’s superintendent of public instruction from 1990 to 1999.

Ms. Paulus, in fact, introduced an earlier version of the legislation in the mid-1990s and campaigned for it while on the job.

The bill is opposed by the current state superintendent, Stan Bunn. His spokesman, Larry W. Austin, said Mr. Bunn views it as ignoring the public’s will.

“The major thing is, if the governor becomes the superintendent and he proposes a huge budget, his deputy who actually runs the department isn’t going to sound off,” Mr. Austin said. “He’ll be a good soldier and salute. An elected superintendent will be more responsive to voters.”

In New Mexico, support for giving the governor more control over public schools isn’t nearly as strong, and the justification for doing so is accountability rather than budgetary concerns.

Gov. Gary E. Johnson, a Republican, urged New Mexico legislators in his January State of the State Address to allow him to name the state schools superintendent, though he did not ask for the power to appoint all 15 members of the board of education.

Mr. Johnson said the switch would make the public schools more accountable.

“Most people think the governor is responsible” for the schools, said Diane Kinderwater, a spokeswoman for the governor, “but he’s not. It’s the state board of education. There’s not just one person accountable.”

Ms. Kinderwater noted that the governor’s proposal has been sponsored by a state senator, but indicated that Mr. Johnson would not lobby extensively for it in a legislature where Democrats control both chambers. “We have pushed it, but the board is doing things we like,” she said.

One reason for Gov. Johnson’s call for greater power over the schools, Ms. Kinderwater suggested, is New Mexico’s high percentage of failing schools. She cited a report last fall by the state school board that concluded that 125,000 students— more than half the state’s students—attended failing schools.

In South Carolina and Indiana, policymakers also are considering calls to give the governor the power to appoint a state superintendent. South Carolina’s Democratic governor, Jim Hodges, supported gaining such powers when he ran for governor in 1998, said Morton Brilliant, his deputy chief of staff.

And last October, a group called the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, made up of business leaders, school board members, and educators, came out in favor of an appointed schools chief.

In a 20-page report, the group faulted the state’s school governance system “as a patchwork quilt, at best, and, at worst, as a fragmented system in which some excel despite the environment, most struggle through it, and few are aided by it.

“Flaws in the governance structure,” the report went on, “preclude needed improvements in the entire system.”

In Indiana, two outside groups—the National Association of State Boards of Education and the National Governors’ Association—have called for giving the governor a larger leadership role over schools. The legislature had called for the evaluation of the education system in 1999, and the state board of education turned to the national groups for help.

When Indiana’s elected schools superintendent, Suellen K. Reed, was running for re-election as a Republican last year, voters were talking more about the politics of Ms. Reed’s campaign than education issues, the two groups noted in a joint report on the topic.

Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon, a Democrat, does not support their recommendation, according to his spokesman.

Shift in California

Sometimes, it doesn’t take formal action for a shift in state- level leadership to occur.

In California, observers have long bemoaned the fragmentation that can result when two elected officials—the governor and the state schools chief—are partially responsible for schools.

The state’s last two governors haven’t waited for the legislature or voters to give them more say over the schools. They took it themselves, a number of education analysts say.

“The real power for education has shifted to the governor ... and has clearly diminished the role of the superintendent,” said Jerry C. Hayward, a co- director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research group at the University of California at Berkeley. The power shift began in the early 1990s, as the state’s economy was reeling from defense cutbacks and other losses.

First, the state board of education sued the superintendent of public instruction over implementing school policy, winning the case in 1993. As a result, the state board was given the direct authority to develop academic standards and negotiate with test developers for state tests, said Michael E. Hersher, a deputy general counsel for the state education department.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, named a state secretary of education, a Cabinet-level position. The secretary of education controlled the state’s academic mentoring programs and a statewide reading program, said John Mockler, the executive director of the state board of education.

With the shakeups of the past decade, the state superintendent’s power has effectively been curbed.

The superintendent—currently Delaine Eastin, a former Democratic state lawmaker who is serving her second term in the nonpartisan post—makes recommendations and puts together task forces, which in turn recommend policies.

“To the extent that [the governor] controls the reform effort more through the state board, it was a dramatic power shift that occurred,” Mr. Herscher said.

Ms. Eastin agrees that the change has clipped the state superintendent’s wings. “Before ‘93, the superintendent set more of the policy,” she said.

But Ms. Eastin said she is by no means a figurehead, noting that she proposed reducing class size months before Gov. Wilson endorsed the idea.

Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who succeeded Mr. Wilson two years ago, has devoted major attention to improving schools. Last year, for example, he campaigned heavily for a successful ballot initiative that lowered the threshold for approving local school bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent of votes cast.

Gov. Davis, like Mr. Wilson, is seen as impatient with the state’s education establishment. Mr. Davis “believes strongly that all kids should be tested,” Mr. Mockler said. “Others don’t think kids should be tested, because they’re too poor.”

Ms. Paulus, the former schools chief in Oregon, said she understands why governors like Mr. Davis want more power over public schools.

After all, she argued, “public education is so important that it should be placed on the doorstep of the governor, and he should be in charge of the funding and the educational results.”

About This Series: This two-year special project to examine leadership issues in education is underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This week’s installment was also underwritten in part by the Ford Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Governors Seeking Levers To Improve Education


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