OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire made the pitch to unify the state’s school systems from preschool to gradulate degrees under her office, even if it means getting rid of the state’s elected school chief.
“This is not about one governor…This is about having one system,” Gregoire said in supporting a bill that would allow her to appoint a cabinet-level secretary of Education and create a department that encompasses all learning prorgrams in state schools and colleges.
The current Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn, made the pitch to keep an elected education leader. “We need to do more. But I won’t sit here and say the system is broke.”
The Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee is considering several bills that would make major changes in school systems, including Gregoire’s plan to consolidate all education under a gubernatorial appointee, and a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the office of SPI.
Some members of the Senate panel seemed critical of Gregoire’s plan, wondering if it would create another mega agency like the Department of Social and Health Services. Not so, the governor said; DSHS has about 18,000 people, the education department she’s proposing would have about 700.
Other members were critical of the current system. People complain the SPI’s office “is like a dinosaur that can’t be moved,” Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Des Moines said, while the dropout rates get worse and the achievement gap broadens.
Things need to be fixed, Dorn conceded, but the Legislature needs to accept some of the responsibility for the current problems. “We are cutting education,” he said.
But it’s not solely about money, Chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, countered. The state has spent more on various programs over the years, but “there are many pieces that are still broken.”
Most speakers told the panel that some reform was necessary. But they disagreed sharply whether putting all education systems in one office, led by a governor’s appointee, was the right reform.
The state needs the independent voice that a separately elected education official provides, Marie Sullivan of the state’s association of school directors said. A member of the governor’s cabinet can’t speak against the governor’s budget if he or she doesn’t think it’s adequate for education, Sullivan said.
But Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who sponsored the proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the office, said the governor is recognizable in a way the education superintendent is not; putting the governor in charge of education would create a tool needed to improve it.
Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center said the governor needs the authority to make changes and by appointing the person in charge of all the state’s education systems, voters “can better hold her accountable for improving education.”