Quest for Seamless System Leads Governors to Seek New Education Authority

By Michele McNeil — July 17, 2007 6 min read
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The nation’s governors, who typically have focused more on their K-12 public schools than on higher education, are stepping up efforts to increase control over their colleges and universities in hopes of turning two disconnected education silos into one seamless system.

Faced with mounting pressure to turn out well-qualified high school graduates, boost college success rates, and better prepare citizens for new-economy jobs, a number of governors have put their stamp on oversight boards, seeking to determine who hires and fires the top state higher education official and aiming to hold the entire system more accountable.

In Utah, for example, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, in May made the rare move of giving district superintendents seats—and voting rights—on the governing boards of their local colleges.

And in Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, persuaded legislators this year to give the governor the authority to appoint the chancellor for the Ohio board of regents, which oversees the higher education system. Before the change, the regents made the pick.

“This ability gives me more authority, and it gives me more responsibility,” Gov. Strickland said in a recent interview. “We are in the process now of bringing about greater cooperation and collaboration.”

Governors, including Washington state’s Christine Gregoire, continue meanwhile to create so-called P-16 or P-20 councils. Such panels are designed to better align public education from prekindergarten through college or graduate school.

Movement Widespread

Governors’ wanting—and often getting—more control over precollegiate and higher education has been a prominent policy theme over the past decade. (“Activists Slam Mayoral Control,” June 21, 2006.)

Recent moves by governors have sought to accelerate that trend, though the reception for such proposals has varied.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
(R) UTAH. Appointed six school district superintendents to serve as voting members of the governing boards of their local colleges and universities in an effort to streamline students’ progression from kindergarten to college, and to broaden the perspectives of K-12 and college officials.

Gov. Christine Gregoire
(D) WASHINGTON. Became one of the latest governors to form a P-20 council designed to better measure results and hold the public education system accountable, from prekindergarten through graduate school.

Gov. Deval Patrick
(D) Massachusetts. Set up task forces to study K-12 and higher education. He also wants to increase his control over the state board of education by adding more members.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer
(D) NEW YORK. Established a a new higher education commissionto help improve the quality of the state’s colleges and universities.

Gov. Ted Strickland
(D) Ohio. Persuaded the legislature this year to change the law so that the governor, and not the board of regents, hires the chancellor for the state’s higher education system. Said he hopes the move will provide more accountability, and offer a better link with K-12.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat elected last fall, appointed a special advisor on education, set up task forces to study the state’s K-12 and higher education systems, and is backing a plan to add more members to the state board of education, which would give him more control over precollegiate education.

Other legislatures and governors, in Indiana and South Carolina for example, have pushed to turn their elected state school superintendencies into positions appointed by the governor, but have been unsuccessful so far.

Still other governors have zeroed in on higher education. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, persuaded the legislature in 2005 to abolish the state’s higher education commission in favor of a Cabinet-level department and secretary of higher education under the governor’s control. In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, has said that next year’s legislative focus will be on higher education.

In New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat who took office this year, issued an executive order in May creating a new higher education commission charged with improving the quality of the state’s colleges and universities.

“Education is the critical link in the innovation economy. Where we have seen success, it has been driven by education,” Gov. Spitzer said in a news conference.

It’s that link between education and the economy that has inspired a greater urgency among states and governors to do a better job of coordinating their K-12 and higher education systems, said Richard Novak, the executive director of the Center for Public Trusteeship and Governance at the Washington-based Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

“We’ve seen governors really exert their authority. There’s a new economy and more pressure to create new jobs,” he said.

The renewed focus on higher education is partly a function of the current fiscal climate. Earlier in the decade, when a sluggish economy led to intense budget pressures and program cuts in nearly every state, higher education funding often was flat or even was cut, leading to higher tuition, Mr. Novak said. Now, many states are flush with cash and can afford to start investing again in higher education.

Mr. Novak cautions state policymakers, however, against putting too much control of higher education in a governor’s hands. That’s a “dangerous idea,” he said.

“What happens when Governor Strickland leaves?” he said, pointing to the legislative change in Ohio that gave the governor the power to appoint the higher education chancellor. “You might have a situation that makes the direction of your higher education system more dependent on who’s in office. That has real risks.”

Changes Sought

But Gov. Strickland maintains that the real danger was in continuing the status quo. He points to average annual tuition increases of 9 percent over the past decade.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “We can’t continue as we are. It’s not working.”

He characterized Ohio’s higher education system as disconnected, one in which officials “see their primary goal as doing what’s best for [their particular] institution.” And, he said, the system has struggled to mesh with the K-12 system.

The governor said his administration wants to encourage the state schools superintendent to work more collaboratively with the higher education chancellor. The state also is working to encourage more early-college programs and a diverse set of post-high-school options so that all students will complete at least some form of college or postsecondary training.

The Ohio Constitution, like other state constitutions, requires the state to provide its citizens a public education—in Ohio’s case, the constitution refers to “common schools,” generally interpreted to mean K-12. But Gov. Strickland said he feels it’s his responsibility to deliver on that commitment from early education through college.

As for whether he would like the power to appoint the state’s precollegiate schools superintendent as well—a power that now rests with the state board of education—Gov. Strickland said he has broached the idea with legislators, but has been warned to stay away from that political fight.

He did say, however, that “the governor should have a greater, more direct authority when it comes to choice of superintendent.”

Varied Approaches

Other governors use their powers in different ways to attempt to address the lack of connections between precollegiate and higher education.

In Washington state, Gov. Gregoire created a 13-member P-20 council to evaluate public education from prekindergarten through graduate school and to hold schools at all levels accountable. At least 30 states have launched councils or initiatives to foster collaboration across the different levels of education, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Having already formed a K-16 Alliance in Utah, Gov. Huntsman in May appointed seven local school superintendents to the governing boards of their local community colleges or state university branches, with full voting rights. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington also was appointed, with full voting rights, to the state board of regents, which supervises Utah’s higher education system.

Putting district superintendents on college governing boards as full members is “pretty unusual,” said Mr. Novak, of the governing boards’ association. He said that at least a dozen states put state schools chiefs on such boards, usually in an advisory role.

Gov. Huntsman thought that adding the local district perspective was crucial to continuing to build a stronger alliance between the K-12 system and higher education, said Christine Kearl, his education deputy. She said the superintendents will be expected not only to bring the K-12 perspective to the table, but also to take back information from higher education officials to improve their districts’ schools.

For example, Ms. Kearl said, “the school districts need to hear from higher education that their students are unprepared [in certain subjects].”

“There had been something of a disconnect,” she said. “We want these to be strong connections.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Quest for Seamless System Leads Governors to Seek New Education Authority


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