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Government & Politics        < Previous        Next >



State Schools Chief: Elected, Appointed,

Or Not Needed At All?


Q. We have an appointed state commissioner of education who oversees a gigantic state budget for K-12 education and makes a lot of important policies. I bet fewer than one-half of 1% of our state's residents know his name or have any idea what he does. Yet his job affects people in this state just as much as, if not more so than, the governor, senators, congressmen, state lawmakers, and many others in important government jobs. Shouldn't the state superintendent be elected by the people, rather than appointed?


In 14 states, such as Arizona, California and Wisconsin, the state school superintendent is elected by partisan or nonpartisan ballot. Candidates don't have to be educators, but must have the same credentials as candidates for any kind of public office: they must be an American citizen, must not be a convicted felon, and so forth.


In 14 other states, the state schools chief is appointed by the governor. Typically, state law requires that person to have certain educational credentials or certifications that signify higher-level training in educational administration, and granted by the state education agency, the same way as a teacher must have a teaching certificate, or a school counselor needs a specific counseling credential.


In the remaining 22 states, the elected state board of education appoints the state schools chief, often with the approval of the governor, and he or she works at their pleasure. In every case, or near to it, the statewide education leader needs to be a "certificated" person, who has come up through the ranks of education.


The latter system is being termed an anachronism and an impediment to change for the statewide job. An Army general obviously has world-class leadership and strategic experience, but wouldn't qualify for a state school superintendent job without a teaching certificate. Or someone with an MBA whose company made a billion dollars and dealt successfully with the federal government and multinational corporations isn't considered qualified to run a much-smaller operation with far fewer employees, a state education agency.


The most worrisome factor is the lack of accountability to voters and taxpayers. Rather than answering to the electorate as other statewide officials have to do, the state schools chief has only to please the 8 or 10 or 12 individuals on that board, plus state legislators who fund schools. These politicians often have conflicting demands; in practice, the teachers' union and bureaucracy often wind up calling the shots behind the scenes.


Appointment by the governor has its perils, too, and is thought to make the schools job too politically-tinged if the two officials walk in lockstep with the same power base.


When they don't, though, governors and education commissioners have tangled, and politics rule the day, anyway, as recently seen in the political squawk between Michigan Superintendent Tom Watkins and Gov.Jennifer Granholm that resulted in Watkins' forced resignation from the $168,300 job in March 2005 (, and the union-driven ousting of well-regarded Cheri Pierson Yecke from the Minnesota state schools job last year (, two states without elected school commissioners.


The state school superintendent is often one of the highest-paid state employees, if not the highest. That's why a growing number of people are calling for the job to be elected, on a four-year cycle, like other high-paid, high-impact state jobs.


There are concerns, however, about whether being able to manage a political campaign, fund-raise and do public speaking are fair indicators of how good a job a person can do in the state school superintendency.


On the other hand, having the top job appointed rather than elected insulates that person from competition from other qualified candidates, and from accountability to the voters, including people whose views differ from the governor's, which doesn't seem right in an area of governance as universally important as public education.


The job entails being responsible for gigantic education budgets, managing large groups of civil servants, meeting with legislators and constituents to determine the level of support for proposed programs, and navigating the increasingly choppy waters of funding streams and regulatory rapids between federal, state and local governments, teachers' unions, special-interest groups, and many other influences on the public education system.


Knowing you have a majority of your state's voters behind you might be enough "juice" to meet all those challenges - and keep the emphasis on what's best for kids.


Then there's the whole new area of asking whether schools even need a statewide school superintendent any more. The job was created back in the day, when communication wasn't lightning-fast, and one district had to connect with another across the state by horse and buggy. Could we be creating more bureaucracy and overcomplication than it's worth, by even having this job in state government?


It's worth gathering the facts about . . . and superintending an answer.



By Susan Darst Williams Government & Politics 12 2008


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