Senate OKs power shift from Board of Education to superintendent

Legislation approved along party lines in the state Senate last week would unravel one of the state’s most vexing and long-standing political snarls – leadership over California’s education policy and regulatory bureaucracy.

A century-long rivalry has festered between the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, elected by popular vote; and the California State Board of Education, appointed by the governor.

While Superintendent Tom Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown are still sailing on a political honeymoon and appear reluctant to support any changes that could rupture that relationship – there remains ample evidence and with decades of conflict to suggest that centralizing authority would be a good idea.

“We should be administering the public’s policies with old fashioned, competent leadership and good administrative bureaucratic structure, and right now it isn’t set up that way,” said Delaine Eastin, whose years as state superintendent were marked for her rocky relationship with then-governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis.

Under the state’s existing structure, the governor through his appointments of the state board controls education policy. Meanwhile, the superintendent oversees the bureaucracy at the California Department of Education and thus, in many ways, also has great influence over policy.

SB 204 by state Sen. Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, would make the board of education an advisor to the governor and state superintendent. Board members would be divided by geographical areas of the state – just like legislators. But the board’s monthly meeting schedule would not change.

Alternatively, the schools chief would have broad authority to set policy and adopt curriculum frameworks.

A spokesman for Liu said the senator considers the bill a work in progress but wants to provoke a debate on the existing system.

“Senator Liu does not know the best answer or final answer, but it is important to engage a dialogue to reach consensus this year,” said Robert Oakes, a spokesman for Liu.

“She has always felt there are too many chiefs here; the system is really complicated and it’s time to step back and look at more effective ways of running it,” he said.

Superintendent Torlakson has not taken a position on the bill and declined commenting on it for this story. Instead, he emphasized his harmonious relationship with the new administration.

“For the first time in years, California has a superintendent, a governor and a state board of education with a likeminded commitment to public schools and student achievement,” Torlakson wrote in an email. “I look forward to a long and productive partnership.”

Similarly, Sue Burr, the state board’s new executive director and lead education advisor to Brown, said in an interview that the current governance structure was “probably the way it’s going to stay.”

There is perhaps no one with a better understanding of the pitfalls of the state’s existing system than former superintendent Jack O’Connell. Much of his first term was spent in close partnership and agreement with Gov. Gray Davis, but most of his last years in office were spent in struggle and conflict with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who candidly spoke of terminating the superintendent’s office.

“The potential for conflict and duplication is real,” said O’Connell, who is now the chief education officer of School Innovations & Advocacy, publisher of Cabinet Report.

For example, he explained, federal programs like Race to the Top are needlessly vetted and signed by both the state board and the state superintendent.

The superintendent is also forced to wait for the state board to approve district waivers and some charter schools. Meanwhile, the CDE has entire divisions dedicated to overseeing and regulating those same issues. 

“It’s very difficult and I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the education community,” said O’Connell.

The history of contention between the governor and the state schools chief is as old as California itself.

The superintendent’s office was conceived during the framing of the first state constitution in 1849. Four years later, then-Gov. John Bigler asked the Legislature to abolish the office.

The California State Board of Education was created three years after the superintendency. Over the following decades it changed composition and authority several times until emerging in 1927 as the current structure.

The most memorable spark of contention arrived in the early 1990s when the state board sued State Superintendent Bill Honig over its power to write education policy and prevailed in court. As a result, the board was allowed to develop academic standards and help develop statewide tests.

In an interview, Eastin said that governors inevitably try to push sweeping reforms that sound good only on paper, while keeping their next job in mind.

“What happens is you get this, ‘what can we do in the way of pretty boutique solutions to problems and take credit for them,’” said Eastin.

As for the new board under Brown, Eastin said she wished they had been appointed while she was in office, though that doesn’t solve the greater problem.

“I think they are fine people,” she said. “But it shouldn’t be about the personalities.”

SB 204 is headed to the Assembly Education Committee.

Ed’s Note: Cabinet Report is the only comprehensive news service covering K-12 education issues in California. To subscribe visit Registration required. Selected stories have been shared with Capitol Weekly with permission from School Innovations & Advocacy, owner and publisher.

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