Is the Era of the ‘Strong Chief’ in Education Fading Away?

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 08, 2014 3 min read
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In looking ahead to states’ 2015 legislative sessions, here’s one question to ponder: Will high-profile battles about standards, testing, choice, and accountability over the last few years lead to fatigue among governors, state chiefs, and others? Do the recent political battles signal that these initiatives will get less attention and become less of a priority among policymakers?

If you look at statistics that might be used to respond to these questions, it’s a mixed bag.

On the one hand, as I wrote about last month, 29 states have changed state education bosses at least once since early 2012. That figure includes the departure (or upcoming departure) of several high-profile chiefs, including Tony Bennett, Chris Cerf, and Kevin Huffman. On the other hand, among the 30 states where an incumbent governor was eligible to run for re-election in 2014, governors in 24 states did run again and win, according to information from the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One person who thinks that 2015 could see significant energy drain away from efforts that characterized much of the last four years is Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners. He thinks fights over the Common Core State Standards and changes tied to the federal Race to the Top grant program might have made more states wary about pursuing the same course with their previous vigor.

He notes that in Tennessee, for example, the individuals considered likely candidates for state chief after Huffman’s controversial tenure are largely state or local officials considered “safe” picks.

A similar play-it-safe philosophy regarding new state chiefs has prevailed recently in states like Florida and New Jersey, Smarick added. Taken together, these changes could signal the end of governors’ appetite for a “strong chief” who makes splashes on the national stage, he argued.

“Have they grown tired of all the education politics, and would they rather hire lower-profile chiefs who are known and trusted in their states, to advance a more moderate agenda?” he asked.

He noted that while some of the new Republican governors-elect, like Larry Hogan in Maryland, may not be opposed to policies made prominent by Chiefs for Change and other groups, it’s unclear whether they’ll commit the same energy to the kind of teacher evaluation and school accountability policies, for example, adopted and modified by many states in recent years.

Plenty of Energy to Go Around?

That’s one view. But some might say that elections invariably lead to new priorities, and that each policy has a different amount of political baggage that may help or hinder its progress. In 2015, charter school advocates, for instance, might see at least a few states for the first time pass laws allowing charter schools (right now, eight states don’t have charter laws on the books).

And whether or not they precisely fit the policy trends of the last few years, some governors could allocate plenty of political capital into big initiatives. For example, Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and governor-elect Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania have already signalled they want major changes regarding K-12 accountability and school funding in their respective states. And a few state K-12 bosses who are a part of Chiefs for Change (like Bennett, Cerf, and Huffman have been) are slated to stay in their jobs for the foreseeable future, like Hanna Skandera in New Mexico and John White in Louisiana.

On Dec. 4, Republican Gov. Mike Pence released big changes to K-12 policy he wants to make next year that will likely draw plenty of attention and criticism. Remember, for nearly two years, there’s been a public and intense fight between Indiana Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and the state school board along with GOP officials.

Pence wants, among other things, to allow the state school board to pick its own chairperson, a move that would likely spell the end of Ritz’s position as chairwoman, given the acrimony between her and board members. He also is pushing to boost per-pupil spending, and lift the funding cap on vouchers.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.