Power Struggles Over Education in the States

By Sean Cavanagh — April 18, 2011 2 min read
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It’s been a particularly frenzied state lawmaking season, one that has produced potentially big changes for schools across the country. But some of the activity and intrigue is focused on political power, as much as it is education policy, as governors, lawmakers, and state schools chiefs wrestle over who will set the agenda for schools.

Power struggles over education are common in state government, particularly following election upheaval, as occurred with the Republican wave last fall.

I took a look at governors’ attempts take more control over school policy a few months ago, in a story that focused mostly on Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s bid to consolidate her state’s various education-related boards and agencies into a cabinet-level office answerable to her.

But since then, other governors have come forward with their own ideas, a number of which were outlined in a recent analysis by the Education Commission of the States.

In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, has signed an executive order creating a board charged with redesigning how his state spends money on schools. Kitzhaber, who will chair the board, has also said he would like to be able to appoint the state’s schools superintendent. The position is currently an elected one.

Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, meanwhile, recently signed into a law a measure that transfers the authority to oversee the state’s department of education from the state board to the state’s superintendent of education, fellow Republican Janet Barresi. Members of the state board of education, who were appointed by former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, have been locked in a nasty feud with Barresi and have refused to accept some of her proposed hires for the department.

“The superintendent—not the unelected board of education—should have the power to run the education department,” the governor said in a statement, explaining the new law.

Not all of the proposed governance overhauls have been successful.

A proposal in Utah, which would have abolished the board of education and transferred control and supervision of K-12 and postsecondary education to the governor, failed to gain legislative support. The measure, which would make a change to the state’s constitution, would need to have been approved by voters.

And in North Dakota, a measure that would have done away with the elected state schools chief’s position, and turned the post into one appointed by the governor, failed to gain traction.

Governors tend to argue that giving them more power makes it easier to cut through the bureaucracy and make bold changes. Critics of those moves say they create an imbalance of power and politicize education debates even more than they are already.

So, tell me: On education, where should the power reside?

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