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Governors Vie With Chiefs on Policy, Politics

By Robert C. Johnston — May 12, 1999 9 min read

After being appointed interim chief in 1985 by then-Gov. Robert D. Orr, a fellow Republican, he and the governor enjoyed weekly policy breakfasts. Those talks eventually led to major school reforms.

But in 1988, when Mr. Evans won statewide election to the chief’s post, the political landscape changed as Democrat Evan Bayh won the governor’s race.

Power Play:
The Series So Far

April 14, 1999: “States Increasingly Flexing Their Policy Muscle.”

Looking back, Mr. Evans says he was naive to think the two could set aside party differences on education. Instead, the programs he had fought for changed under the new administration. And his access to Gov. Bayh, he says, was limited mostly to occasional media events.

"[The governor] would meet with half of my school board, and I didn’t even know it,” Mr. Evans said. “I’m not condemning him, but I think the system’s flawed when it works the way it worked in my second term.”

Sour grapes? Maybe. But Mr. Evans is hardly alone in contending that the process of creating good, consistent education policy is undermined by ill-defined responsibilities and partisanship that put governors, state schools chiefs, and state boards of education at odds.

High-level power struggles have even led to lawsuits in several states, including California, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, legislatures in California, Hawaii, and Nevada have tackled issues of school governance this year.

The activity underscores the fact that, despite more than a century of providing a free, public education to their young people, states remain vexed about the best way to get the job done.

“I think the issue of governance deserves a lot of attention,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education and a former president of the Maryland state school board. “It needs to be looked at.”

Consolidating Power

One of the most significant power shifts involves governors, who today are much more involved in shaping public education than they once were.

A number of governors--among them, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Richard W. Riley of South Carolina--pointed the way for a new era of activism in the 1980s. Such efforts gained further momentum with the 1989 governors’ education summit called by President Bush, which drew states into a movement to set and pursue national goals for improving academic performance. Then in 1996, following a second summit, the governors formed Achieve Inc., their own resource center on educational accountability.

“I’ve been following this stuff for 35 years. Many governors were totally detached from education well into the 1980s,” said Michael W. Kirst, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank based at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

“Now, governors are not just paying attention to education policy, but how it’s implemented,” added Mr. Kirst, who is also a past president of the California state board of education.

Responding to increased public interest and demands for better schools, governors have also ratcheted up their education rhetoric and policy proposals. But many governors have also tried to restructure the roles of key players in education governance to consolidate their own authority over school policy.

For example, the number of governors who appoint their chief state school officers has doubled from five to 10 since 1983. And of the 32 state school boards that are picked by governors, 14 choose the schools chief.

To be sure, there about as many variations on governance models as there are states.

However, according to Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States: “What has really changed is that governors have become more powerful in appointing chief state school officers and school boards.”

School observers are split over whether the increased centralization is an improvement. After all, there has been an effort historically to keep education independent, locally controlled, and above the political fray.

Susan Shupard, the executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association, already misses the days when the state school board appointed its superintendent of schools.

That changed two years ago, when Gov. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat, successfully lobbied the legislature to replace the superintendent with a powerful education secretary whom he appoints.

“The change in structure has made the governor more accountable, and it’s appropriate,” said his press secretary, Sheri L. Woodruff. “It streamlines the process and gives him easier ability to make proposals.”

Chief Concern

Streamlining may get things done more quickly, Ms. Shupard concedes, but she fears that something is lost in the new order. “There’s been a lot of collaboration over the last eight years over school reform,” she said. “That has slowed up. We’re not at the table as much, and all the stakeholders feel the same.”

Martha McCarthy, a professor of education at Indiana University Bloomington and a school governance researcher, agrees that the more authority governors have to pick the critical players, the easier it is to pass an agenda. “Is that a measure of success? No. It means it is more efficient. It doesn’t mean you have better schools,” she added.

But opinions vary on how best to pick a chief state school officer and how much power he or she should have.

Bill Honig, a Democrat who served in the elected, but officially nonpartisan post of state superintendent in California, has concluded that governors should appoint their schools chiefs. His opinion was forged following his legendary feuds with former Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican.

Both elected in 1982, the two men fought over education spending and the state’s testing program, which Mr. Deukmejian helped kill in 1990. California has since adopted two statewide exams, including the 2-year-old Statewide Testing and Reporting program.

“The conflict got so personal,” Mr. Honig remembered. “I think [the governor’s administration] made decisions not on an educational basis, but to get you.”

He said that elected chiefs, even if they are non-partisan, compete for attention with the governor in order to get elected. “After thinking over the pros and cons, it’s better to have the governor on the hook. He or she has a program. It gets implemented,” Mr. Honig said. “You have accountability. With split governance, it gets too wishy-washy.”

Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction John T. Benson is two years into his second four-year term as the elected, nonpartisan schools chief in his state. It is his job to make sure that state school policy gets implemented. Unlike Mr. Honig, however, he contends that electing a nonpartisan schools chief is the best way to go.

“It keeps partisan politics far away from children in the school,” Mr. Benson argued. “I don’t report to anyone but the public. If they don’t like you, they throw you out.”

Going to Court

The tension between state leaders often spills over into the courts, where the results have been mixed.

For example, Gov. John Engler of Michigan is waiting for the state supreme court to decide if he can enforce his 1996 executive order that called for shifting numerous powers from the elected state board to its appointed schools chief. Mr. Engler, a Republican, handed down the order after the board’s makeup changed from a 6-2 Republican majority to a 4-4 split.

The four Democrats on the state board filed a lawsuit arguing that Mr. Engler lacked the constitutional power to make such a move.

But even the board’s GOP president, Dorothy Beardmore, has misgivings about Mr. Engler’s actions. “The governor is interested in education, and he wants things better for kids,” she said. “But sometimes he’s like a bull in a china shop trying to get there.”

In Wisconsin, old wounds are healing after the state supreme court threw out a 1996 law that let Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, another Republican, appoint his own education commissioner. The law, which had been championed by the governor, would have reduced the elected state schools chief’s power.

“They tried to get control, and it didn’t work. We fought it tooth and nail, and the governor didn’t like it, but we prevailed,” Mr. Benson said.

At one time, Mr. Benson doubted that he and Mr. Thompson would get over the spat, but the two have joined forces on such issues as raising academic standards and reducing K-3 class sizes.

“This year, when the governor laid his budget on the table, the superintendent was the first person to support it,” said Ken Cole, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

California has seen two elected schools chiefs battle in the courts with the gubernatorially appointed state board over policy authority.

In 1993, the board won a ruling declaring that it--not the superintendent--should set the direction of the state education system. In 1997, the board asked the court whether the state board or the superintendent should decide the positions that the state education department takes on policy matters that go to litigation. The outcome of that suit is still pending.

Some experts say such episodes of political and legal wrangling are the natural course of democracy and no cause for concern.

“The system is designed to have tensions. It is designed to have checks and balances,” said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington and a former New York state schools chief. “There shouldn’t be any surprise that there are these tensions.”

Messy Business

Ted Sanders, a former appointed state chief in Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio, added that conflict is the healthy byproduct of a messy but successful political system. “The greatest harm is outright apathy,” he added.

The evolution in governance continues today in many states.

For example, lawmakers in Hawaii only recently failed to approve a measure that would have given their state’s elected school board new authority to raise income taxes. And while the idea died in a legislative conference session last month, lawmakers have promised to hold hearings on the idea this summer.

In Nevada, legislators are debating a proposal by Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, to move from an elected school board to one that he would appoint. The bill remains alive, although the legislative session there ends May 31.

In California, Democratic state Sen. Deirdre “Dede” Alpert is sponsoring legislation that seeks to clarify the roles of the state’s top education policymakers.

“What started me thinking about this was the acrimonious relationships between the governor, the board, and the superintendent,” she said. “But it is a lot deeper than political parties. The whole structure is so bad that, under the best of circumstances, it didn’t seem the best way to run education.”

Ms. Alpert’s bill would add two legislative appointees to the 11-member California state board. It would also rein in the board so that it mainly focused academic standards and curriculum, and less on administrative issues such as budget development and personnel decisions. In addition, the bill would spell out that the state superintendent administers policy, while education department employees would be reminded that they are also staff members to the state board. Finally, the state’s education secretary would get statutory, Cabinet-level status--a boost from the current informal, governor-appointed role.

“Any time you have a whole batch of people who believe they’re in charge, then nobody is in charge,” Sen. Alpert said. “It’s hard to know who’s accountable or responsible.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Governors Vie With Chiefs on Policy, Politics

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