Opinion and Forefront

PORTER: Keep the office directly accountable to Hoosier voters

December 24, 2011

Greg PorterQuestion: Should the state superintendent of public instruction be elected or appointed by the governor?

Answer:
Electing the state superintendent of public instruction is about limiting power, maintaining accountability, setting a good example, and respecting voters.

Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction leads more than 350 school corporations and charter schools and more than 1 million public-schoolchildren.

Article 8 of the Indiana Constitution establishes the office but leaves the method of selection up to the General Assembly. The General Assembly has decided Indiana’s voters should choose the officeholder.

Indiana’s first state superintendent of public instruction, William Larrabee, was elected in 1852 in the first general election after the adoption of the Constitution. Indiana voters have been electing this head of schools for 160 years.

Under both Democrats and Republicans, Indiana has been a national leader in education reform—always with an elected state superintendent of public instruction.

There is no good reason to stop electing this public official and allow the governor to appoint someone. As matter of fact, there are only nine states in which the governor appoints both the state board of education and the superintendent of public instruction.

There are three reasons to make certain voters continue to have the right to elect this official.

1. The office is powerful. The state superintendent of public instruction is also the chairperson of the Indiana State Board of Education and co-chair of the Indiana Education Roundtable. He or she supervises the director of the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board.

This officeholder influences every aspect of public education. The voters must retain the right to elect all our most influential and powerful officeholders so these public officials remain responsible to the voters and not the governor who appointed them.

2. Allowing voters to elect the state superintendent of public instruction maintains public accountability. Every four years, the top education position in the state must stand for election. He or she must travel the state campaigning—meeting voters, talking to newspaper editorial boards, and debating the opponent.

Without an election, what will make an appointed superintendent inclined to pay even the slightest attention to any school board member, teacher, parent or student when they offer suggestions to improve the quality of education?

Those who are seeking accountability from others should not seek less for themselves.

3. Because the state superintendent of public instruction is the leader of all of Indiana’s public schools, the method of selecting the leader sets a precedent for choosing other education officials, especially local school boards. Elected local school boards give voters a voice in the leadership of their schools. Not electing the state leader of our public schools sends the wrong message and sets the wrong example for the selection of all local school boards.

The assertion that voters cannot make a wise choice because they cannot understand the qualifications of the candidates is wrongheaded. Voters can decide whether they want an educator or a businessman to lead our schools.

All the other state officers—attorney general, treasurer and auditor—are elected, and the voters decide if they want a lawyer to be attorney general or someone with financial experience to be the treasurer or the auditor.

Electing the state superintendent of public instruction remains the best method of selecting a qualified and experienced person who will listen to the public, respect the limits on his or her power, and face the same accountability that is expected of our public schools.

There should be no greater advocate for the education of our children than the state superintendent. That person should be held accountable to the voters, just like your local school board, your state representative and your governor.

The elimination of the election to this education position is an erosion of the public trust.•

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Porter, who represents Indiana House District 96 in Indianapolis, is ranking minority member of the Education Committee. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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