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The Wars Between Governors and Education Chiefs

By Michele McNeil — December 26, 2007 3 min read
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In Maryland, the icy and downright hostile relationship between State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick and Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley exemplifies the ugly power struggle that can result when a governor doesn’t directly control his state’s school chief.

As O’Malley continues to push for Grasmick’s resignation, she refuses to step down. After all, the governor is not her boss—the State Board of Education is. Reporter Liz Bowie details the duel from Grasmick’s perspective in this Baltimore Sun story.

Says one Grasmick critic in the story, who wants her to bow to the wishes of Gov. O’Malley: “The governor was elected to a four-year term by the people.” Yes, that’s true. But the people of Maryland, through their elected representatives, at one time crafted the state law that established the education bureaucracy—and whoever was in power then clearly thought it wise to create a chain of command that does not lead directly to the governor.

While there is something to be said for giving a governor more authority over education, a compelling argument also can be made for having a state schools chief who is not at the governor’s beck and call.

For about half of this country’s school chiefs, their relationship with the governor is clear and this usually isn’t a problem. There are 14 state school chiefs who are separately elected officials and thus answer to voters. By my count, six are up for re-election in 2008. On the other end of the spectrum, there are 12 who are appointed directly by, and answer to, the governor.

But the rest of the chiefs, like Grasmick, are caught in the middle and are appointed by their state boards of education. In some states, these boards are elected, in others, the governor appoints some or all of the members.

Most states have created some distance between governors and their state’s education chiefs for a reason. Education is a responsibility spelled out in all state constitutions, so state legislatures created separate boards and chiefs to govern them. In fact, according to the Maryland state law, the governor can only remove an education board member in extreme circumstances, such as in cases of “immorality” or “willful neglect of duty.”

Regardless of how a state school chief comes into that job, it’s not a particularly glamorous one—after all, it’s a lot of day-to-day monitoring of schools and education laws, not to mention enforcing the ever popular No Child Left Behind Act. What’s more, in many states, district school superintendents make more money than state chiefs.

But increasingly, governors want, and are taking, more control over education as they realize the connection between their state economies and the quality of public schools. That’s not to mention the fact education is an election issue, and school spending takes up about half of state budgets. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and a presidential candidate, was one who successfully sought more control over education in his state.

In Indiana, where I covered education for a decade, the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed, a very popular Republican who has been elected to four terms so far, doesn’t hesitate to be a thorn in the sides of the legislature or the governors she’s served with. And almost every year, some lawmaker files a bill to make her position appointed by the governor, rather than elected by voters. (Some view it as her punishment.) But it never succeeds, for several reasons. For one, lawmakers are hesitant to take such a decision away from voters (who also elect them.) And secondly, I think there are many lawmakers who think that checks-and-balances between vested policymakers, even if they do result in heated debates over education, are ultimately good for schools.

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