Politics

State School Superintendents and the Messy Business of Politics

How elections in 2014 could shape education policy in the states.
by | January 16, 2014
In 2012, Indiana's Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz beat Tony Bennett, who later stepped down as the top schools official in Florida due to a grading controversy dating back to his Indiana tenure.
In 2012, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz beat Tony Bennett, who later stepped down as the top schools official in Florida due to a grading controversy dating back to his Indiana tenure. AP/Darron Cummings
 

Education policy is a perennial battleground at the state and local levels. Teachers' unions and other advocacy groups are often lined up against capitols and city halls, prompting spirited battles over how and whether to overhaul school policy, from expanding charter schools and testing, to eliminating teacher tenure.

This year will be no different. A large majority of states will hold elections in 2014 that could -- directly or indirectly -- shape the way they run their public school systems.

Every state has designed its K-12 education policy apparatus differently, using a wide range of organizational structures and methods for appointing leaders. This diversity of state methods has left me parsing some of the most complicated structural dynamics I've seen in my years of covering state politics.

That said, here's a look at how education policy could intersect with electoral politics in 2014. In this, the first of two columns, I will look at the big picture. In the second column, I will take a closer look at a number of specific contests that could have an impact on policy.

How State School Superintendents Are Chosen

(Note: For more details on how party control of the office breaks down, click here.)

There are four main ways chief state school officers are chosen.

Direct election by the voters was once the most common method -- at one time, 70 percent of state superintendents were elected, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. Today, that number is just 24 percent.

In eight states, superintendents are still popularly elected on a partisan basis. In four others, they are popularly elected on a ballot that, officially at least, is nonpartisan. (Sometimes a candidate's party affiliation is known unofficially.)

But most states use other methods. In 16 states, the chief officer is appointed by the governor. And in the remaining 22 states, they are chosen by the state school board or, in Oregon, by the state's Education Investment Board.

So, for the 28 states that fall into the first three categories, elections can play a pretty transparent role in shaping the course of education policy.

In many of the remaining 22 states, electoral politics can play an indirect role. In these states, the governor appoints a majority of the members of the state board of education, and those members, in turn, are the ones who appoint the chief state school officer.

Multiple nuances in how these systems work make it difficult to say with precision which party currently controls more chief state school officer positions. Republicans hold five of the eight seats directly elected by partisan ballot, and the GOP holds one - unofficially -- among the seats that are elected on a nonpartisan basis. Democrats hold three partisan positions and two of the nonpartisan positions.

Meanwhile, more Republican governors (10) than Democratic governors (6) currently lead states where the governor appoints the chief state school officer. But more Democratic governors (9) than Republican governors (3) serve in states where the governor appoints the majority of the state education board that chooses the chief officer.

Add it all up and you have at least 20 states where the Democrats today either occupy the chief officer position directly or hold the reins of power for appointing it. For Republicans, that number is 19 states. In other words, measured this way, the partisan breakdown is roughly even.

Still, these figures should be taken with a grain of salt, for several reasons. Professional expertise can trump partisan ties in education policy. Often, education policy brings moderate Democrats and Republicans together, and the differences are sometimes stronger within the two parties than between them. And because multiple governors may have appointed or reappointed school board members, the appointees' partisan affiliations may not be fully obvious.

The 2014 Electoral Map

With that, let's turn to the outlook for 2014.

For starters, voters in six states will directly elect a chief state school officer this year. Those states include California, where the election is nonpartisan, and Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, where all the elections are partisan. Except for California and Idaho, these contests are expected to be at least somewhat competitive between the two parties. In each of the states, again with the exception of California, the current occupant is a Republican, meaning the GOP has more seats directly at risk in 2014.

In addition, 13 gubernatorial seats with the power to appoint the chief state school officer are up in 2014 -- four governorships held by Democrats and nine held by Republicans. Of these, two Democratic seats are deemed liable to see a party switch in 2014, Connecticut and New Hampshire. So are two Republican-held seats, Maine and Pennsylvania. (Connecticut has recently adopted a hybrid system for the school chief appointment that has not been tested yet, so the governor's ultimate influence in the process remains to be seen.)

And finally, nine governors who appoint a majority of their state school board are up in 2014. Of these, three governorships are at risk of flipping partisan control: Arkansas and Illinois, currently held by Democrats, and Florida, which is held by the GOP. The partisan influence for these states is weaker: Even if the gubernatorial seats flip control, it would take several years for the new governor to put their stamp on the board, since school board terms are often staggered.

The Education Policies Up for Debate

In most of these races, experts say, there will likely be a range of education-related issues in play. "There seems to be large consensus on charter schools and school accountability amongst policymakers," says Gary Ritter, a professor of education reform and public policy at the University of Arkansas. "However, the pet projects of the Democrats will be expanded spending on pre-K education, while Republicans will focus on various forms of school choice, including vouchers."

Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that advises groups in the education sector, adds that for gubernatorial races, the focus is usually on "high-level issues like funding. Standards and assessments typically aren't part of the debate, since they are in the weeds. However, there's a very high probability that Republican [races] will be full of candidates opposed to Common Core, with a set of other issues like teacher evaluations and claims of over-testing to make a case against recent reforms."

Indeed, Common Core standards, drawn up by the nonpartisan Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association, Will be an issue in several races this year.

Critics have emerged from both the right and left. As Governing columnist Mark Funkhouser recently wrote, "The movement against Common Core is an angry rebellion that shares with the Occupy and Tea Party movements a revulsion toward top-down policy-making emanating from the nation's elite." In education policy, he wrote, that has meant a "rejection of the dominant education-reform paradigm, supported by leaders of both political parties, that embraces charter schools, vouchers, more testing of students, increased accountability for teachers and hostility to teachers' unions."

National Association of State Boards of Education executive director Kristen Amundson says she anticipates "some controversy" over Common Core in the 2014 elections, though it may be couched in terms of "testing and its associated costs, which we are already seeing, and over issues like privacy," rather than on the standards themselves.

Some of these battles will play out in state legislatures rather than in gubernatorial or superintendent elections, says William Schmidt, director of the Center for the Study of Curriculum at Michigan State University.

Still, education policy is likely to be a flashpoint in elections as well. Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners says that a 2012 election in Indiana has continued to have special resonance, particularly for the superintendent races where voters choose directly.

In 2012, Tony Bennett, a hero to conservative education reformers, lost his re-election bid for Indiana's superintendent of public instruction. His efforts to expand school vouchers and heighten accountability had created a backlash, and he ended up losing by a six-point margin to Democrat Glenda Ritz, an award-winning teacher who ran a grassroots campaign challenging several of his policy changes. (Bennett later was named the top schools official in Florida by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, but he stepped down in August 2013 due to a grading controversy dating back to his Indiana tenure.)

Bennett's loss at the hands of Indiana voters "casts a shadow over the upcoming state superintendent races," Smarick says. "Very quickly, an opposition movement organized and caught Bennett's campaign unprepared. State-level reform issues are becoming more contentious, and strong, determined voter groups could materialize on any side of an issue. No elected state superintendent should take 2014 for granted."

How Control of the Office Breaks Down

• In states where chief state school officers are elected on partisan and nonpartisan ballots, Democrats currently hold the seat in five states: California, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Republican currently hold the seat six states: Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

• In states where the chief state school officer is appointed by the governor, the sitting governor is Democratic in six states: Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Virginia. Similarly, the sitting governor is Republican in 10 states: Iowa, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.

• In states where the chief state school officer is appointed by the state school board, partisan control is a bit tougher to break down. And as noted in the article, the chief state school officer is appointed by the education investment board in Oregon, but it being included in this count. Here's a rough breakdown of party control: There are nine states with Democratic governors where the governor appoints a majority of the state school board (Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Rhode Island and West Virginia. Similarly, there are three states with Republican governors where the governor appoints a majority of the state school board (Alaska, Florida and Mississippi). The state board is elected directly by voters in partisan races in four states -- Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan -- and the state board is elected directly in nonpartisan races in another four states: Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio and Utah. The state board is named by the state legislature in New York.

Look for the state-by-state look at key races next week.

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