State Schools Chief: Elected, Appointed,
Or Not Needed At All?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 (www.bridges4kids.org), and the
union-driven ousting of well-regarded Cheri Pierson Yecke from the Minnesota
state schools job last year (www.EdWatch.org),
two states without elected school commissioners.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
worth gathering the facts about . . . and superintending an answer.