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Schwarzenegger suggests ending public school superintendent's office

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers his July 9 weekly address.

As if California doesn't have enough to deal with, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has opened up a new front in the education and political wars: He wants to abolish the office of the superintendent of public instruction. 

In his radio address Friday, he berated the Legislature's "inaction" for failing to pass a budget, saying they should not "even think about raising taxes or borrowing" before eliminating inefficiencies in government. 

One of the principal inefficiencies Schwarzenegger suggests streamlining is one of the least prominent of statewide elected offices: the nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction. The current superintendent is Jack O'Connell, a former high school teacher and Democratic state legislator who will be termed out in November after eight years in office. 

The only problem: The position is mandated by the California constitution. Eliminating it will require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature (don't hold your breath for that to happen), and then it has to be submitted to the voters for approval. 

Even if he were really serious about this, Schwarzenegger would be long out of office before this change would happen or take effect. 

Most education experts in California would agree that the current system deserves reform. Why have a state board of education (appointed by the governor), a secretary of education (appointed by the governor, currently former Schwarzenegger senior adviser Bonnie Reiss), and a superintendent of public instruction (elected by the people)?  

As Michael Kirst, a Stanford emeritus professor of education and former chairman of the state board of education during Gov. Jerry Brown's term once told me, "Everybody's in charge, and nobody's in charge." 

But why would Schwarzenegger throw this obscure issue into the middle of a gridlocked budget battle? Even if the superintendent's position were abolished tomorrow, it is unclear how it would have any impact on resolving California's schools or budget crisis. O'Connell has no control or power over school spending. He mainly has used the post as a bully pulpit to advocate on behalf of schools and students. If anything, it is the governor's office that holds the most sway over schools right now, even with the constitutionally mandated superintendent's post still in place. 

The issue is also more complex than it may appear. In the American democratic system, local school boards run schools (Meg Whitman, the GOP candidate for governor, wants to give them even more power than they have now). What exactly should the role of the state be in running the schools? What role should the governor have? What should the role be of an appointed state board of education versus local elected boards?  

Schwarzenegger's radio remarks addressed none of these issues. Schwarzenegger did not mention the secretary of education is a relatively recent political invention (devised by Gov. Pete Wilson in the early 1990s as a counterpoint to then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig). The nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction, by contrast, has been in the state constitution since it was first written in 1849. Which position should take precedence? 

Andrea McCarthy, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman, told me that while abolishing the office of the superintendent of public instruction would yield savings for the state, "there are no specific proposals" on the table to make it happen. She said it is just an "example of the options the state could consider to save money and improve government performance."

Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for O'Connell, said Schwarzenegger's call for abolishing O'Connell's position makes the governor seem "uninformed." Abolishing O'Connell's position would only save a salary of $151,127, and the state would still have to find someone to run the Department of Education. There would also be the cost of having a constitutional amendment approved by voters.

A much more efficient way to save money, she said, would be for Schwarzenegger to abolish the office of the secretary of education, a position in the governor's cabinet. (He has had several secretaries of education since he took office in 2003). "There is nothing to prevent him from streamlining government right now," she said.

It's an interesting issue to tackle, but it is one that seems far from the multiple crises, and political gridlock, that grip California today.  

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


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PlentyToSay's picture
There is also another layer of unnecessary education oversight with the County Offices of Education. They should be abolished and regional offices established to serve rural and smaller school districts with limited resources. Even with all these layers of bureaucracy, leaders, unions etc., our schools are failing miserably to produce educated graduates who are ready to compete. Another cost savings would be to eliminate the Legislature's practice of imposing new guidelines and programs that are unfunded, yet mandatory. School districts are required to apply for funds after the fact to cover these costs, and it takes years to secure those funds, if at all. Most schools don't even bother to ask for reimbursement because they can't afford to hire the consultants to file the mounds of paperwork. The system is a mess. Combine that with a strict policy of keeping teachers who may be less than desirable because they are protected by tenure. Why?? No other profession has that protection. Why do they need it? During this time of massive budget cuts, all the new teachers who may be better able to relate to students, and who are not "mentally retired" are being laid off! It doesn't take a gang of PhD's to figure out that the current system is NOT WORKING or SERVING OUR KIDS. I am a member of Support California Kids, a Foundation started by parents who are fed up! Go to www.supportcaliforniakids.com and learn more about this great group who are putting kids first in education reform.
PlentyToSay's picture
the website mentioned for Support California Kids is actually www.supportcakids.com
Caroline Grannan's picture
I'm for eliminating the STATE Board of Education. It currently functions almost solely as a lobby for the charter school industry, and that just duplicates the services of the bounteously funded private charter lobby. Also, for some years the state BOE was handing out grants of $400K-$500K to pretty much anyone who showed up claiming to want to start a charter school, just for the supposed costs of pursuing the approval process. As I understand it, there were almost no requirements, documentation or receipts involved, and no reimbursement was required even if the school never got off the ground. Seems like our public schools could possibly have used some of that money.
Caroline Grannan's picture
...By the way, I don't know if the state BOE is still handing out those $400K-$500K grants to any would-be charter operator who knocks on the door, but perhaps California Watch could find out.
Louis Freedberg's picture

Thanks for these suggestions. I will follow up on them. And good to know about Support California Kids.

Tungsten Wedding Bands's picture
I will follow up on them. And good to know about Support California Kids. www.tocoy.net
RCali's picture
I am for eliminating District superintendent office as well. It is just another layer of bureaucrats whose pay are overgenerous and whose purpose is not the best interest of the students. I also would like to file a petition to amend the Education Code so that the teachers and school administrators are held accountable equal to the accountability they demand from the students. Students, who are children thus ignorant, naive, foolish, are criminalized while teacher bullying students are sheltered and protected by the school, district, county administrators and the Education Code. Poor and/or immigrant parents are unaware of the EC, when aware can't fully comprehend it, and can't afford lawyer fee to fight for impartial treatment for their children. I have a case that high light problem and would appreciate support from those who can help.

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