All three northwest states - Washington, Oregon, Idaho - have elective officials called the superintendent of public instruction, who manage departments that oversee public schools in their states. The superintendents in Washington and Oregon are elected as nonpartisan, while Idaho's is partisan.
So do these states need an elected superintendent?
There's been talk, at various points, in all three, about the idea of making the job appointive - probably by the governor - so as to provide that a well-prepared education professional will run it. Randy Dorn in Washington was a school teacher and principal, though neither Oregon's Susan Castillo nor Idaho's Tom Luna is an educator by profession. In last year's election, a state legislator (with a doctorate in education) nearly ousted Castillo, though a challenge to Luna by a just-retired local school superintendent fell far short.
It does come down, though, to whether the position should be held by a professional - which comes down to what it should do. If it's essentially a policy-making job, then voters probably ought to retain control of it, and there's no strong reason an education professional needs to occupy it. If it's more in the line of a technical management job, then appointive might be the more logical way to go. As it is, the job in each state seems caught somewhere in the gray area in between.
The talk about a conversion to appointive seems strongest at the moment in Washington, where Governor Chris Gregoire has raised the idea. Here's what she said last week about education reorganization:
“Washington state does not have an education system but multiple agencies and plans that deal with education,” said Gregoire. “If students are going to succeed as they progress from early learning through higher education, then every level of education must work together from pre-school on up. We must reduce the gaps in math and science education as students progress from early learning to K-12 to higher education, so every student arrives ready to excel on the first day of class.”
A Secretary of Education would lead the department’s work to develop education policy, provide system-wide accountability and guide implementation of innovative student-centered services and practices. A single strategic plan will guide these efforts as the department works to unify early learning, K-12 and higher education.
The Superintendent of Public Instruction would collaborate and cooperate within the department unless the Legislature and voters approve a constitutional amendment to eliminate the statewide elected office. Gregoire’s bill contains provisions to create the department with or without an elected Superintendent. If the Legislature and public approve the amendment, the Superintendent’s duties would transfer to the department.
“The Legislature and voters will make decisions regarding the election of a state Superintendent, and I will support whatever option they choose,” said Gregoire. “Whatever choice is made, a unified Department of Education will better prepare students to succeed in school and life.”
She seems to have built in the idea that voters ordinarily are loathe to give up their prerogative to elect officials.
The idea of streamlining, though, could be a fairly strong sell. Oregon and Washington could well have a close look at this debate as it progresses.