Early in January, Richard Woods will be sworn in as the duly elected superintendent of state schools. He could very well be the last person ever elected to this statewide constitutional office.
There will be a serious push in the upcoming legislative session to put a constitutional amendment on the 2016 election ballot that would make this an appointed rather than an elected position. If that amendment were to pass, it would take effect after Woods serves his designated four-year term.
This is something that should have happened a long time ago, for several reasons.
Some of the former state school superintendents have been an embarrassment to the people who elected them. One of them went to prison for stealing federal education funds. Another one made Georgia a national laughingstock by trying to eliminate the theory of evolution from the science curriculum.
This is also an elected office the state really doesn’t need anymore. Over the last 15 years, the powers of the state superintendent have been steadily whittled away through a series of bills passed by the General Assembly.
The school superintendent is basically an administrator who is compelled to carry out the directives of the governor and the members of the state Board of Education (who are all appointed by the governor). Why go to the trouble and expense of electing someone who effectively is a department head controlled by the state’s chief executive?
State Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, a technology businessman with two electrical engineering degrees, is taking the lead on this issue. He pointed out that in 38 other states, the school superintendent is appointed by either the governor or a state board of education, and said it makes sense for Georgia to follow that example.
“This is not about who is or is not elected to the position tomorrow, but about good governance,” said Dudgeon, a member of the Forsyth County school board before being elected to the legislature in 2010.
He noted that Georgia voters now elect four different entities or individuals that are all given the responsibility to determine how public education is handled: the local school board, the General Assembly, the governor and the state school superintendent.
“There are already lots of elected people with a voice in education policy, so you really don’t have to elect everybody,” he said.
“It’s really about leadership alignment,” Dudgeon said. “With all those different elected people, it is a little bit difficult to get alignment in leadership.”
The alignment problem is illustrated by the ongoing discussion of the Common Core standards that underlie the state curriculum for K-12 public schools.
These standards were championed by former Gov. Sonny Perdue and were adopted by the state Board of Education in 2010. Gov. Nathan Deal has been generally supportive of the Common Core standards, and when Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, tried to outlaw them in the last session, his legislative colleagues rejected his bill.
The governor, the state school board, and legislators are all on board with the Common Core standards. Woods, however, opposed Common Core in his campaign for school superintendent. How can you reconcile those conflicting points of view? You can’t — which is another strong argument for appointing rather than electing a superintendent.
One approach being considered is for legislators from each congressional district to elect a person from that district who would serve on the state Board of Education. The board would then appoint a state school superintendent. Lawmakers already use this model to pick members of the State Transportation Board, which in turn elects the DOT commissioner.
“The legislature is setting ultimate state policy anyway, so the board they’re electing can implement the details of the policy they vote for,” Dudgeon contended
There are many details to be worked out on this issue over the next couple of years and Georgia’s voters may decide they don’t want to give up this elective office, even though few people pay much attention to it.
Dudgeon does make a good case for streamlining the way Georgia develops and implements its education policy.
If local school boards, the governor and the General Assembly are the ones who make education policy, what’s the need to elect a state school superintendent as well?
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report.