Who Needs an Education Secretary? Maybe Not California

By Sean Cavanagh — December 29, 2010 2 min read
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Expect lots of announcements in the coming weeks from newly elected governors naming their handpicked education secretaries, usually described as impassioned champions of “reform” (meaning the policies favored by their bosses).

New Mexico’s governor named one last week. Iowa’s gov picked his own today.

But that post-election tradition may not play out in California. That’s because Democratic Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, who reclaimed the job he held a couple decades ago, promised during his campaign that he would eliminate the position of secretary of education, rather than appointing somebody to that post, as is customary in the Golden State.

“Currently, education policy making at the state level is divided among the state board of education, the superintendent of public instruction and the governor’s secretary of education,” Brown said in a statement during the campaign. “As governor, I eliminated some of this overlap by not appointing a secretary of education and looking to the state board for educational policy advice. Given education’s fundamental importance, I intend to play a major role in education policy. But I would work with and use the existing staff of the state superintendent or state board, as opposed to having my own separate educational staff.”

In addition its state board, California has an elected superintendent of schools, a job currently held by term-limited Jack O’Connell. He’s being replaced by Tom Torlakson, a former Democratic state lawmaker elected in November to the nonpartisan schools post.

But governors in California have also long appointed their own education secretaries. The ed post under outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is held by Bonnie Reiss. For his part, Schwarzenegger sees bureaucracy run amok in different places than Brown does—he’s proposed axing the state schools superintendent’s position.

A spokesman for Brown’s transition team declined comment on what will happen with the position. But the governor, faced with yet another of the state’s mammoth budget shorfalls, has pledged to set an example for cutting government by reducing the size of his office by 25 percent. So stay tuned.

Thanks to John Fensterwald at the Thoughts on Public Education forum for alerting me to the ed-sec-or-no-ed-sec issue. For some nice background on the duties of the various education officeholders in California (and the confusion over their duties) check out Louis Freedburg’s piece for California Watch. He lays out the history of ed sec and ed adviser appointments in California, which he traces to the late 1960s, and comes up with some surprises. Anybody remember that former governor and Republican icon Ronald Reagan appointed a liberal University of California professor to the post?

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