Thursday, November 07, 2002


Two of the best State Board of Education members ever, Kathryn Piller and Kathy Wilmot, have apparently been knocked off the board by challengers who were heavily funded by the teachers' union. There's still hope for Wilmot in a recount, but it's slight. Now the worry is that the state board of ed will revert back to being a big, bad, boring rubber stamp for whatever the state commissioner of education wants.

Except for those two, it has been Groupthink City on that board in recent years. Now, there have been occasional rays of light from Ann Mactier of Omaha on reading issues and Rachel Bone on matters of fiscal and societal conservatism. But without Piller and Wilmot, it's going to be an uphill battle to stand up against the status quo in public education on that board in important matters such as the commissioner's employment contract and so forth.

There are hazards to electing the chief of education for a state, just as there are hazards to going on the way we've done it for so long. The fear of overpoliticizing the office is always there, if we change to electing our state schools chief.

But we elect people to other key state offices that require special professional knowledge, such as the state attorney general, auditor and treasurer. With something as important as education, there should be some way to make the person more accountable to the public and less beholden to the special-interest groups that have education by a chokehold, particularly the unions.

The state ed commissioner is, after all, the highest-paid state employee outside the university system . . . ironically, after only the psychiatrists at the regional centers, for the most part. The commissioner's salary was listed as $118,186 in the May 2001 Personnel Almanac published by the Nebraska State Personnel Division, Department of Administrative Services. That compares to $65,000 for the governor, $52,000 for the secretary of state and $49,500 for the auditor, all of whom are elected statewide.

So who does such a high-paid government official report to? The commissioner is supposed to work for the elected representatives on the state ed board. But in practice, most of the board members have basically followed his direction over the years. And his direction, almost without fail, has been in lockstep with what the teachers' unions and educational bureaucracies want, not necessarily what's in the best interest of students, families and employers.

It's an unworkable situation politically, since the state education commissioner makes such a high salary and yet supposedly serves at the pleasure of state ed board members, who are reimbursed for expenses and that's about it. This is sort of a throwback to the way government used to be run, out of sync with today's push toward more direct accountability of public servants.

What to do?

Rick Savage, who did a great job as a strong, independent voice for parents and students during his stint on the State Board of Ed from 1996-2000, proposes this change:

Let's let the governor appoint the state commissioner of education.

Savage said that would be a good way to make the education chief accountable to people across the state. The governor would go around campaigning with specific educational philosophies and policies made clear. Everybody who voted would know what statewide educational policy should be, based on those well-articulated positions. That would make it much easier to hold the state ed commissioner accountable. And we'd all live happily ever after.

I agree with Savage.

He said, "The problem now is the education system is made of educators, by educators, and for educators. They can get away with anything because they can hide behind obscure candidates on the State Board of Education. After they get a 'rubber stamp' board there's very little that can be done to stop the commissioner because he persists as the sole source of information and perspective to the elected board."

Savage is another good Nebraskan whose name has been mentioned along with Brad Kuiper of Gretna for possible appointment by Gov. Mike Johanns to replace State Sen. Jon Bruning, who won election Tuesday to the state attorney general's office.

Savage may not get the nod this time, but with good ideas like this, we hope he gains public office somewhere soon. And may somebody in the Unicam pick up on this idea . . . and run with it.

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