Mike Brake | February 20, 2020
In most states, governor appoints top school official
When Gov. Kevin Stitt proposed a vote of the people to make the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction appointive rather than elective, he was suggesting that Oklahoma join a growing consensus among states that appoint their chief state school official.
“Just 13 states still elect their state chiefs, down from 33 states which did so a century ago when state departments were first established as data clearinghouses for states,” Education Week recently reported. “What was once seen as a pillar of education governance—letting the people directly decide who they want to oversee their public schools—has increasingly come to be seen among political consultants as one of the root causes of political infighting and diffuse school improvement strategies.”
Oklahoma is one of the 13 states where the state superintendent is elected—and one of those states is about to shift its position to appointment. Other than Oklahoma, the states electing state superintendents are Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and California, which elects its chief state school official on a nonpartisan ballot.
That number is about to be 12. In 2017, tired of infighting between its elected state superintendent, who was then a Democrat, and members of the state board of education, who had been appointed by a Republican governor, Indiana legislators passed a bill that would make the office appointive in 2025.
Last year they accelerated that change when the incumbent superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, announced that she would not seek re-election in 2020. The office will thus become an appointed secretary of education in January of 2021.
McCormick praised the change, saying that “while politics has been interjected into our education, at the end of the day the question should not be, ‘what side of the aisle are you on’ but ‘are you on the side of kids?’ The 2020 gubernatorial race will deserve greater attention as our students’ futures are dependent on it.”
Under Indiana’s reform, new governors will appoint the secretary of education. That means that both the state’s chief executive and its chief state school official will be on the same page on education policy—a goal Stitt is seeking with his proposal.
Observers quickly recalled the 2018 headbutting between then-Gov. Mary Fallin and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister when Fallin requested data on school spending.
“I don’t take orders from Governor Fallin on public education,” Hofmeister said. While there has been no similar confrontation between her and Stitt, she has nearly two years left in her term. Hofmeister is term limited in 2022.
The debate over Indiana’s shift from an elected to an appointed chief state school official focused on clashes between McCormick’s Democratic predecessor and school board members. One board member was quoted as saying that “the superintendent was elected, but not as an education czar.”
Indiana governors appoint 10 of the 11 members of the state’s board of education; the 11th was historically the elected state superintendent.
“If we are going to give our governors authority to set state education policy,” one local pundit said during the debate, “we also need to give them the ability to implement that policy. Why elect one executive branch official to execute the policies of another?”
The Indiana reform was made possible because that state’s constitution only calls for creation of an office to oversee education. Oklahoma voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment to make the office appointive. Some states that appoint the chief school official allow the governor to do it. In others, the state education board selects the person.
HJR 1011, by state Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore, would make the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction an appointed office.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.