Question: A number of Democrats and Republicans in recent years have called for making the state superintendent of public instruction a position appointed by the governor. Should the position be appointed, and if so, in which year should the appointment begin?
Answer: For decades, the nation’s governors have been the driving force for changing—and improving—education policy.
As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton helped launch the national education reform movement with the aggressive agenda he championed. Gov. Jeb Bush further propelled education reform with the bold education changes during his tenure in Florida.
Indiana has a long bipartisan tradition of governors leading on developing and championing education policies. Republican Gov. Bob Orr had his impressive “A-plus” reform package. Gov. Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat, led the implementation of the nation’s most demanding education standards; signed charter school legislation into law; and pushed full-day kindergarten, a cause for which governors Joe Kernan, a Democrat, and Mitch Daniels, a Republican, also fought. In 2011, Daniels also championed historic reforms that ended seniority-based teacher placements, strengthened teacher evaluations, and increased parental choice.
Given this strong leadership, I have for years—including in these pages in 2011—advocated for Indiana to follow the lead of 37 other states and allow our governor to appoint the state’s education chief, who runs the Department of Education.
The system we have now doesn’t make sense. The Legislature decided long ago that our governor leads on education policy. The governor appoints 10 of the 11 members of the State Board of Education. And, as Gov. Pence recently noted, Indiana law requires the state board to set K-12 education policy and then oversee the Department of Education’s implementation of those policies.
If we are going to give our governors authority to set education policy, we also need to give them the ability to implement that policy. Why elect one executive branch official to execute the policies of another?
Granting to the governor the authority to appoint the superintendent would ensure alignment between the governor as policymaker and the superintendent as the implementer. More important, it would better equip voters to know who is responsible for the state’s education policy and, therefore, whom to hold accountable.
Our current system is unfair to voters. While I strongly support Indiana’s recent education reforms, I believe even more strongly that opponents of those reforms have the right to be heard. I fear that voters who galvanized to support Superintendent Glenda Ritz did so with the false impression that Indiana law empowers the state superintendent to change policy rather than implement existing policy and advocate for change.
Clear accountability is essential for democracy to work. Having an appointed superintendent would avoid the blurred accountability that now exists. It would focus voters on the governor, who makes and can change education policy (along with the Legislature), not the person who is charged with implementing those policies.
Here’s the bottom line: An appointed superintendent would ensure Indiana’s governor, who by both long-standing practice and state law is charged with leading on education policy, has the tools needed to ensure all Indiana students excel.•
Harris is CEO of The Mind Trust, a not-for-profit focused on K-12 education reform in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.