Wednesday, July 09, 2008

An Idea: Have the Governor Appoint the Superintendent of Public Instruction?

On a mailing list I’m on someone recently shared a conversation that they had with a state senator. He echoed what I’ve heard other legislators say during my lobbying trips—Terry Bergeson is ineffective and something needs to change over at OSPI—but then went a step further and said he was considering legislation for this next session that would change the SPI position from an elected one to an appointed one.

That’s an interesting idea. I don’t know that it’s a good idea, but it’s one that merits some conversation.

Washington is actually in the minority by having an elected state schools chief. Education Week (here) says that of the 51 people nationwide who are equivalent to our SPI position, only 14 of them are elected, a finding that's further explored by the Council of Chief State School Officers here. An interesting study would be to compare the NAEP scores for states and see if there’s any correlation with how their school chiefs are put into the position, but that’s a topic for another day.

Let’s look at both sides of the idea, starting with the pro:

  • If the Governor appointed the Superintendent, then it stands to reason that the Superintendent would be more accountable to the Governor. Ideally, then, SPI would be a sort of cabinet-level position, given the authority they need to do the job as long as it falls within the parameters the Governor sets.

  • Given the above, then, you would hope to see the sort of synergy between the Governor and the SPI that you do when a mayor takes over control of the school system. It could be comparable to what Mike Bloomberg and Joel Klein have established in New York, or Michelle Rhee in Washington D.C.

    (Before my DC and NY readers rip me a new one, settle down. I haven’t done the negatives yet)

  • You would also avoid the problem of multiple agendas. Consider if Dino Rossi won the Governor’s mansion this November and lifelong Democrat Terry Bergeson was returned to the Old Capital Building for another run as SPI; can their goals possibly be the same?

  • I think the idea of mandate is important, too. The OSPI election has never been high profile outside of those circles that care most about education; even your average teacher doesn’t get invested in the process the way that they should. Consider President Bush after he won in 2004 and made his speech about political capital; he had a mandate to keep his policies in place, and he used it. Winning the OSPI election doesn’t have that same authority; maybe having to go through a legislative appointment would be a change for the better.

  • If you make it a non-elected position you also take away the incumbent’s advantage. SPI should not be a sinecure, a lifetime appointment. Similarly, an SPI who isn’t running for office might have different interactions with the legislators and the public writ large than one who has to keep their eyes on the next election.
Oh, but there are negatives as well:

  • It takes the choice away from the voters, and that’s maybe the most important consideration of all. We like our voting here in the Evergreen State, we like our sunshine and our open books, and making SPI appointed hurts all three of those ideals.

  • What would the vetting process be? What would the Governor’s charge to their search committee be? How much influence would special interest groups (the WEA, the PSE, the EFF, Where’s the Math, Mothers Against WASL, League of Education Voters, AWSP, WSSDA, WASA, WASBO, etc., etc.) have in the selection, even if that influence is exercised through back channels?

  • Along those same lines, then, making the SPI an appointed position could make it an even more political one. Those groups I listed above may not always have luck getting their message out to the public, but they all do a crackerjack job of lobbying and communicating with legislators. The hearings could be a hoot.

  • Change isn’t always good. Say what you will about Terry she does have an institutional memory of what’s gone on in Washington schools that stretches back 30+ years, and that’s a perspective that very few others can claim to have. Would education reform start over again and again and again every time a new face took the office?

  • Consider, too, Mr. Klein and Ms. Rhee from above. Both have their strident critics, and both have made some bad decisions. Sure, they're city superintendents and we're talking state level, but Klein especially shows that a mandate can be a bad thing.

This could well just be legislative bravado—even in the short time that I’ve been making trips to Olympia, I’ve seen plenty of it—but should a bill be introduced it’ll be something well worth watching.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home