Lawmakers skeptical over restructuring SPI’s role
(Calif.) Members of a joint legislative panel struggled Wednesday to find an impetus for drastically rolling back the powers of the state schools chief in favor of the governor.
The power-sharing system where neither the Superintendent of Public Instruction nor the state board of education have ultimate authority over public education policy is rooted in the state constitution as it was originally drafted in 1850 when California was admitted into statehood.
Although the arrangement has been the source of conflict over the years, policy experts conceded in a hearing before both the Senate and Assembly education committees there was no empirical data showing that giving either the governor or the SPI final authority would result in better student outcomes.
“It’s really important that you decide what it is you want to achieve,” said Hunter Railey, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States. “My suggestion is to consider what you hope to accomplish before making any changes and determine what the key metrics will be from there, because it is really hard to assess how you would even qualify a good governance system. In a lot of cases these are based on value judgments.”
Wednesday’s hearing was informational and no action was taken, although a key advocate for making the change, Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, participated in the program and lobbied in favor revising the existing system.
But the idea drew skepticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“We’ve got to be careful that there’s one thing we can do in Sacramento that will make every child successful,” said Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach. “It’s got to happen in the classroom. It’s got to happen at the local level. It can’t all be driven from Sacramento.”
Steyer, who is the brother Tom Steyer, a Silicon Valley billionaire who is running an active campaign aimed at impeaching President Donald Trump, agreed that restructuring education oversight wouldn’t fix the system by itself—but it would help.
“We’re not suggesting this is a magic bullet,” he said. “But we think this is a logical, intelligent way to more efficiently deliver services to the schools of this state and have a clear line of accountability.”
This not the first time anyone has suggested the realignment of education authority.
Voters rejected constitutional amendments to make the superintendent an appointed position in 1928, 1958 and 1968, according to the Little Hoover Commission.
There have also only been a few serious periods where the arrangement created conflict.
Perhaps the greatest crisis in modern times came during the tenure of former Superintendent Bill Honig in the late 1980s and 1990s. Honig, a Democrat, feuded openly and often with vigor against the state board members appointed first by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and then later those of former Gov. Pete Wilson, also a Republican.
But mostly, the two offices have found a way to work co-operatively.
The model, which is not uncommon in the governance of politically sensitive institutions, divides authority to protect against domination of a majority over minority voices.
Thus, the superintendent serves as the administrator of the state Department of Education and is elected by the voters in a nonpartisan process.
The state board is appointed by the governor and set policy that the department is expected to follow.
It is left up to the courts to decide what to do when the two sides disagree.
Steyer’s proposal would have the Legislature and the governor agree to change the education code so that oversight of the K-12 school system was directly under the governor.
The governor would then appoint a “Director of Education,” just as the governor does for dozens of executives overseeing state services and programs.
The SPI would remain a constitutional officer and continue to be an elected position, but the duties would be limited—an action that some say the Legislature has the authority to do.
The Common Sense plan would make the superintendent a full-voting member of the state board and also a role in support of the University of California Regents, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the teacher pension board.