Thursday, July 14, 2005


This is nothing against Nebraska State Education Commissioner Doug Christensen. He has done an OK job in his longtime appointment by the State Board of Education to what is the highest-paid job in state government, other than the psychiatrists at the Regional Centers, which is rather humorous in and of itself.

No, this is about our system of state governance for public education. It’s time for a state senator to push through a bill, or perhaps it would take a change in our state constitution, so that we voters can elect our state schools superintendent every four years or so, instead of having him or her appointed by the State Board of Education.

Right now, the constituency of this highly important governing job is the teachers’ unions and the school administrators – not the voters, taxpayers, parents and students. The way the system is set up, there’s no accountability to us – no need to get our buy-in – and that’s obvious in Nebraska’s sad, strange status as one of the highest-spending states when it comes to public education, with so-so results, and an utter lack of educational freedom compared to other states, since we’re one of only about 10 states without charter schools and publicly-funded school choice to help low-income kids escape failing schools.

I really don’t blame this on Christensen or fault his leadership: I fault the way the system is structured. It might have made sense in decades past, but as things get more and more complicated, the need for a great education system gets even more critical for Nebraska’s economic future, and the dollars get eye-poppingly high, it’s time for the people to have the say-so and influence over Nebraska’s top educator – not the education establishment itself.


State Schools Chief: Elected, or Appointed?

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. But I bet fewer than 1% of our state’s residents know his name or have any idea what he does. Yet I think 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.

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.

The latter system is being termed an anachronism and an impediment to change for the statewide job. The state schools chief has to please the 8 or 10 or 12 individuals on that board plus state legislators who fund schools, and they often have conflicting demands; 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 (
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.

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.


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