SADOW: No, We Don’t Need An Elected Education Superintendent

Having both an elected state superintendent of education and a mostly-elected board overseeing education remains a bad idea that Louisiana got rid of only a little more than a quarter-century ago.

Two bills by state Rep. Joe Harrison would resurrect the notion, which would make Louisiana the only state in the union to have both an elected top education official and state school board with elected members. The Constitution actually provides for an elective superintendent, but in the Legislature’s wisdom in 1986 it took advantage of the provision to make the office appointive by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education staring in 1988. Harrison’s bills would amend away that possibility or reverse the previous statute.

While the movement for states to fragment executive power swept the country in the latter part of the nineteenth century, in Louisiana it went into overdrive, especially as inculcated into the 1921 Constitution, which the 1974 version was supposed to correct. Even the 1921 version had an appointive superintendent by a board constituted just like today’s BESE, but in short order that was amended to accommodate the political popularity of long-time existing superintendent T.H. Harris, and the office remained elective until the idea was transferred to the 1974 version, a period which featured plenty of pro-segregation sentiment, after Harris failed reelection in the reform 1940 election use often as a stepping stone for (failed) attempts at higher office, and oversight of a school system that developed into one of the, if not the, worst in the country.

Political and policy aspects aside, the structural problem with the idea was the unnecessary power fragmentation that made setting education policy of any kind more difficult than need be. In fact, this has gone against the run of play in the state not just with the abolishment of the elective nature of the office, but in that years previous in 1979 voters applied the same idea of enabling greater coordination in policy-making in amending how BESE elective members got into office. The 1974 Constitution had staggered elections in six-year terms; the successful amendment brought about four-year terms concurrent with the governor’s, making all BESE members come in and out of office at the same time.

In testimony about the bills, current BESE Pres. Chas Roemer wisely made this point in a somewhat different way, noting that an unpopular superintendent could stick around in office without extraordinary powers exerted to oust him. This assumes BESE to be better-regarded, but the reverse could be true as well, as in either instance such an official and BESE at loggerheads would create a difficult few years in which for any comprehensible policy implementation to occur. The preferences of school districts seems to validate, for no district in Louisiana has an elective superintendent, nor is there any history of that.

Most states now follow the same model as does Louisiana, and of those dozen that have an elected state superintendent, all but one’s have all appointive spots on their education boards (the one that doesn’t has no board). For good reason, no state that has both has them both elective. So if there’s a real move to make the superintendent elected, then in tandem BESE should be made all appointive or done away with (which also would go against the grain in that states have been jettisoning elective superintendents in recent years).

Whatever the motivations of Harrison and others who voted both bills out of committee, system performance seemed to take a back seat. Presently, voters directly and indirectly through a governor elected at the same time, with the governor given disproportionate influence, have a clear and accountable mechanism by which to have education policy made subject to parameters set by the Legislature. There’s no good reason to introduce obfuscation and increased risk of incapacitation to educational policy-making in Louisiana.

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