Legislature considers trimming role of state schools chief
(Calif.) Lawmakers are expected to hold an informational hearing later this month to consider drastic changes to the role and responsibility of the state schools chief—potentially even asking voters to eliminate the office.
At issue is the long-standing power-sharing structure that California law imposes on education policy, where neither the Superintendent of Public Instruction nor the state board of education have ultimate authority.
While the current cast of players are aligned politically and work collaboratively, that has not always been the case, and proponents of fixing what at times has been a dysfunctional system say now is a good time to tackle the problem.
“Governor Brown and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson can make this historic streamlining and strengthening of the state education system part of their respective legacies in the final years of their terms,” said Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based children’s advocacy group in a position paper supporting the restructuring.
“The Department of Education and the State Board are collaborating and working well together currently, which makes this the ideal time for a seamless transition,” the group said.
The model, which is not uncommon in the governance of politically sensitive institutions, divides authority to protect against domination of a majority over minority voices.
Thus, the superintendent serves as the administrator of the state Department of Education and is elected by the voters in a nonpartisan process.
The state board are appointed by the governor and set policy that the department is expected to follow.
It is left up to the courts to decide what to do when the two sides disagree.
While the system has worked reasonably well over the years, there have been some notable clashes.
Most recently were the tensions between former Superintendent Jack O’Connell, a Democrat, and the board put in place by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
Perhaps the greatest crisis in modern times came during the tenure of former Superintendent Bill Honig in the late 1980s and 1990s. Honig, a Democrat, feuded openly and often with vigor against the state board members appointed first by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and then later those of former Gov. Pete Wilson, also a Republican.
It might be argued that whether changes are made or not, the political landscape surrounding public schools will remain the same because the governor and legislative leaders will still control education policy through the budget process and the making of law.
Still, the notion that this fundamental flaw impedes student performance on some level goes back generations.
The first serious effort to address the system came in 1920, when Herbert Jones, then chair of the state Senate Education Committee, issued a report warning the “double-headed” system was “dangerous” and needed attention.
Voters rejected Constitutional amendments to make the superintendent an appointed position in 1928, 1958 and 1968, according to the Little Hoover Commission.
It is perhaps because both entities have deep roots in state history.
Indeed, the first occupant of the position, John C. Marvin, was elected in 1851—just one year after California joined the union. Only one year later, in 1852, the first appointments to the state board were made.
It is unclear exactly what will be discussed at the pending hearing before a joint session of the Senate and Assembly’s education committees. But according to education advocates who have been briefed on the plan, there will be presentations from staff on the history of the offices and the structure that other states use.
A variety of interest groups are expected to testify, including Common Sense Media, which is led by Jim Steyer, a civil rights attorney and author who is also the brother of Tom Steyer, a Silicon Valley billionaire and political activist best know today for his campaign to impeach President Donald Trump.
The memo from Common Sense suggests that lawmakers could make fundamental changes to the job of the superintendent without going to the voters.
The idea here would be to change the education code to remove the superintendent’s responsibility over the K-12 school system and place that authority directly under the governor.
The governor would then appoint a “Director of Education,” just as the governor does for dozens of executives overseeing state services and programs.
The SPI would remain a Constitutional officer and continue to be an elected position, but the duties would be limited—an action that some say the Legislature has the authority to do.
The Common Sense memo proposed that the superintendent could be made a full-voting member of the state board and also be given a role in support of the University of California Regents, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the teacher pension board.