State schools Superintendent Anne Fox failed Tuesday in her bid to wrest power from the state Board of Education.
In a 10-8 vote in the House Education Committee, a move to make Fox a sort of “education czar” died. It was the latest move in an ongoing battle which some say has left a leadership void in Idaho’s public school system.
The committee killed legislation proposed by Rep. Ron Black, R-Twin Falls, who is running against Fox in the primary. Fox strongly backed the bill, saying it would have corrected an intolerable situation.
“I have never seen such disrespect for a constitutional officer as with the state board,” Fox told the committee during three days of hearings on the bill. “The superintendent of public instruction is an elected person, elected by the people of Idaho.”
Idaho’s school superintendent is in charge of the Department of Education, which oversees the public school system from kindergarten to 12th grade. She’s also a voting member of the Board of Education, which has oversight of both public schools and higher education, in cluding all the state’s colleges and universities.
Under the bill, the superintendent would become essentially the president of the board, setting the board’s agenda and calling meetings. Some supporters described the newly redefined position as an “education czar.”
“What this would allow is the elevation of the position as the leader for all of the state’s education,” Fox said. “I am elected by the public, and I am accountable to the public.”
The state board is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
Both the board and the superintendent are established in the state’s Constitution. And each claims the other is trying to encroach on its authority.
Rep. David Callister, R-Boise, said, “It’s obvious to me that the state board is not prepared to lead the state in education. … We’re a mess. We need a leader.”
“The board sets education policy subject to the laws passed by the Legislature. … The superintendent enforces and executes state law in K-12 matters - that’s the distinction,” said Kevin Satterlee, deputy attorney general for the state board. “When it comes to education policy, the superintendent shouldn’t be placed over the board.”
In the first such clash lawmakers could remember, another deputy attorney general - this one representing Fox’s department - disagreed with Satterlee.
“They are, I believe, not on an equal footing in the eyes of the Constitution,” Karl Vogt told the committee. He said the state board this year improperly “attempted to dictate to the superintendent … what her budget would be.”
“There is indeed a constitutional crisis brewing,” Vogt said. On Tuesday, David High, a division chief in the attorney general’s office, delivered a legal opinion to the education committee. The current situation, he said, is constitutional. And with a few changes, the proposed bill also would have been constitutional.
State Board of Education member Curtis Eaton said he thought it was “wise” of the committee to kill the bill. The board is happy to work with the Legislature to clarify roles, he said.
“Clarifying that is in everybody’s best interest, I’m sure.”
But Eaton said he sees no need to change Idaho’s system. “The state board is setting policies, and the person who’s the head of that (education) department should be carrying out those policies for dayto-day purposes. I think that’s pretty clear.”
Rep. Black said he thinks the board is trying to carry out policy, rather than just setting broad policy guidelines. That infringes on the superintendent’s job, he said.
“Somebody’s got to put that group in line. They are political appointees. The superintendent is elected to carry out the policies.” Fox said she was frustrated in her attempts to refuse federal funds for the Goals 2000 program and delayed in her plan to send new curriculum guides out to school districts, because the board disagreed with her.
If the superintendent was placed over the board, she said, “You could move forward and get those kinds of things done.”
Idaho Falls activist Dani Hansen, a former Fox supporter who worked with Black on the legislation, berated Fox after the committee meeting.
“Why not bring this up three years ago?” she demanded. “We’ve been waiting.”
As Hansen accused Fox of “whining and crying and saying ‘they won’t let me,’ ” Fox turned and left the room.
Jerry Evans, a Republican who served as state superintendent from 1979 to 1995, said his relationship with the state board over the years required “a certain amount of finesse and common sense.”
“As long as those elements are present, and people in both roles are willing to sit down and work together, I never did think there was a conflict that couldn’t be resolved.”
Evans has researched the role of the superintendent and board stretching back to when Idaho was a territory. He has also compared notes with superintendents in other states.
“I concluded that Idaho’s set-up was not particularly bad.”
He added, “It’s worked for many, many years. I suppose that there’s always room for some improvement and some clarity. But the real key is understanding and mutual respect.”
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