New Governors Squeezing State Ed. Boards’ Authority

By Sean Cavanagh — July 01, 2011 3 min read
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Political wrestling matches over the right to shape school policy play out in state capitals just about every year. But in 2011, one group of policymakers in particular—state boards of education—have faced unusually intense challenges to their authority.

Legislation has emerged in at least 14 states this year to change or strip the power afforded to those boards, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education, which is fighting many of those efforts.

Many of those measures have been stalled or killed as the legislative season—a wild one for education—dragged out. But lawmakers in a number of states, including Nevada, Oklahoma, and Oregon, gave their blessing to potentially far-reaching changes to the structure and power of boards of education.

In many states, the challenges to state boards have coincided with the election of new governors. Last fall’s elections gave Republicans control of 29 governor’s mansions and the largest number of legislative seats they’ve had in generations.

Unlike some of their predecessors, many of the current crop of governors have placed K-12 education at or near the top of their agendas. They’ve argued that giving them more control over state boards will make it easier for their states to set bold new directions in education, and craft coherent policies with minimal bureaucratic interference.

In Nevada, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval recently signed a law that gives him the right to hire and fire the state schools chief, who to date had answered to the state board. The law also changes the board from one whose members are elected to one with a combination of elected representatives and appointees of the governor and lawmakers.

In Oregon, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber backed the creation of new board with broad powers over education policy. He will chair the panel and appoint its members.

Oklahoma’s new governor, Republican Mary Fallin, signed a measure that strips many of the powers of the state board of education and gives them to the state’s GOP schools superintendent, Janet Barresi. That move followed a rancorous power struggle between Barresi and board members appointed by the previous governor, a Democrat.

The association of state boards of education says taking power from the panels is shortsighted and results in too much power being concentrated in one place—usually, the governor’s office.

Brenda Welburn, NASBE’s executive director, argues that independent state boards bring grassroots voices into high-level decisionmaking on education. Board members also tend to have a broader perspective on proposed changes to a states’ schools, she contends, one that isn’t as likely to be influenced by the next governor’s or legislative election.

When boards’ policies are dictated by governors, “you tend to go along with what your boss believes,” Welburn said. “A good state board does not.”

Governors “have a sense of urgency, and they want to make immediate changes” to education policy, she said. But too many of them are trying to overhaul boards “without thinking about why the board was established that way in the first place,” she added. “It’s governance by personality, not by what’s good practice.”

Many governors and lawmakers, of course, don’t see it that way. This session, several have argued that state boards can create another layer of government that gets in the way of their ability to make changes to their state’s schools.

In Oklahoma, for instance, Fallin argued that the state’s elected state schools chief, who is accountable to residents, needed and deserved more authority to shape policy.

“The superintendent of public instruction is elected based upon the ideas and agenda they present to voters,” Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for the governor, explained in an email. “Governor Fallin believes the state superintendent—not the unelected board of education—should have the power to run the education department.”

The law, which shifts power over the state’s department of education from the board to the state superintendent, will “help make the department more accountable and responsive to the will of the people,” he argued.

What impact will shifting power away from state boards have on school policy? We’ll probably have to check back in a few years to find out. But as is usually the case in politics, if voters and state lawmakers aren’t satisfied with the changes made by governors and lawmakers, it seems likely we’ll see a shift back in favor of state boards before long.

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