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Sun., March 20, 2011

Con: Our state constitution’s framers got it right; we should keep an independent superintendent

One issue that has taken much more of my time than I’d like is governance. Just this past Monday, I was involved in a panel discussion with Gov. Gregoire and a few legislators. The featured speaker, by video, was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Secretary Duncan repeated what Gov. Gregoire has said since January: We have too many silos. He also mentioned the need for education reform.

That point in particular struck me as odd. Last year the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction was embroiled in our application for Race to the Top, a grant given to states that showed progress in key areas of education reform, such as teacher evaluations, charter schools and the effective use of student data. Nowhere in the Race to the Top guidelines was education governance mentioned. Why is streamlining state education agencies now a priority of the federal government, when it wasn’t just a year ago?

On Secretary Duncan’s point about Washington having too many silos, I agree completely. But I disagree on what to do about them.

Years ago, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction was larger. For a variety of reasons, OSPI has been fractured, and agencies like the Department of Early Learning were formed. I’d like to bring many of those agencies back under the OSPI fold. Education works best when it is as seamless as possible, and having a centralized agency will help that.

The governor’s proposed Department of Education essentially translates into more power for the governor – power that our state constitution clearly gives to the superintendent of public instruction. Article III, Section 22 states that the superintendent “shall have supervision over all matters pertaining to public schools, and shall perform such specific duties as may be prescribed by law.”

In 1961, then-Attorney General John O’Connell was asked the following question: Can the State Board of Education act as the state superintendent’s “boss”? O’Connell’s answer was an emphatic no. He wrote that the “plain and unambiguous” language of Article III, Section 22 makes it clear that “supervision” rests with the state superintendent, and that that power can’t be curtailed by the Legislature.

O’Connell also noted that, prior to 1889, the state superintendent was appointed by the governor. But when the constitution was adopted, the state superintendent was listed as a separately elected official in Article III, Section 1.

Our framers had it right. That decision, among others, began a Washington tradition in which power isn’t concentrated, it’s distributed.

We need to maintain education’s independent voice. Without a separately elected official, who will advocate for children? Who will stand up and tell the Legislature and the governor that our students – our future – should not accept any more cuts to their education?

As I’ve said many times, my “boss” is every voting citizen of Washington. That’s the way our framers wanted it more than 120 years ago, and that’s the way our citizens want it now.

With all due respect to Secretary Duncan, I don’t think the federal government ought to be telling states how to govern themselves or how to manage their education agencies. This Washington is different than the other Washington, and different from Chicago – the secretary’s hometown. We value our progressive, populist tradition of direct election of important officials. And in our constitutional tradition, that includes a strong, independent superintendent of public instruction.

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