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."
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.