It’s not exactly controversial to say that most state education systems could use some major repairs -- if not a complete overhaul. One such reform is currently being discussed in Washington state, where Gov. Christine Gregoire has proposed a plan that would radically rebuild the entire education structure in her state. The idea is attractively simple: a single state Education Department to handle everything from pre-kindergarten programs to post-graduate studies.
“Today in our state, we do not have an education system,” Gregoire said when she announced the proposed shift in January. “We have a collection of agencies that deal with the subject of education.” Washington currently has eight education agencies and 14 major strategic plans, according to the governor’s office. Gregoire’s proposal would create a cabinet-level education secretary, appointed by the governor, atop one seamless agency. The governor says that bringing all of the state’s education efforts under one umbrella -- “from the preschool to the Ph.D.” -- would save money and resources, and help ensure the best possible education experience for students.
Such a reorganization would give Washington the most centralized education department in the nation. Massachusetts has a single education secretary, but the state also has separately elected boards for each level of the education system. Legislators in North Dakota are debating a bill that would create a unified system similar to the proposal in Washington, but because the idea represents such a sweeping change from the current model, the plan attracted immediate controversy. The State Board of Higher Education and a public school administrators’ group have vowed to fight it, which would require a constitutional amendment. And in Washington, teacher unions have also raised concerns about Gregoire’s proposal. The voter-elected state schools superintendent, whose position would have been eliminated, railed against the plan as a power grab by the governor. (Gregoire has since said she’s no longer seeking to eliminate the superintendent position.)
Still, ideas like the ones in Washington and North Dakota are inherently sensible, says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, a national advocacy group for public education. “The vision is the right vision,” he says. “But it’s difficult to achieve, largely because elementary and secondary education is a completely different kind of creature from post-secondary.” Even within higher education, Jennings says, it would be difficult to consolidate management of the “enormous variety” of institutions, from two-year community colleges to multi-campus research universities, not to mention for-profit proprietary schools like the University of Phoenix.
“It’s a good idea,” he says, “but an education secretary would be dealing with vast structures that have developed independently for a hundred years—structures that are resistant to being blended in with other groups.” He predicts that the Washington plan will get watered down to the point that the secretary will play merely a coordinating role for different education levels. “Still,” he says, “it would be a step forward.”