An education commissioner accountable to whom?

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(Host) Commentator Libby Sternberg reflects on the relationship between the education commissioner and the governor, and how education policy is determined in Vermont.

(Sternberg) Recently, Vermont’s education commissioner unveiled an early education initiative with eight components, ranging from establishing a uniform kindergarten entrance date to expanding the state’s role in pre-kindergarten programs.

The early education programs proposed by the commissioner were presented smack in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign. At first blush, that would seem odd because one would assume that the next governor would have his own ideas on education issues and would want to consult with his education commissioner on how to promote and implement those ideas.

There’s the problem – the governor has little say over the commissioner of education. While the governor appoints other important department heads, such as the leaders of the transportation and commerce agencies, he just gets to say yea or nay to the commissioner of education’s appointment by the state Board of Education.

Surely, you say, the state Board is elected and thus accountable to the people. No. The state Board is made up of ten people appointed by the governor to six-year terms. Because Howard Dean has been governor for so long, he has appointed every single current member. While some vacancies will come up during the next governor’s term, it would take another decade-long tenure for a new governor to completely fill the board with like-minded individuals.

Only a dozen other states in the country have such a low accountability system for their education CEO. Eleven states have some indirect accountability with the education CEO appointed by a high-profile elected official, such as a governor, who can then be held responsible for his or her choice. Twenty-seven states have systems where some state board members are elected and/or the education CEO is elected.

Education policy, of course, can be effected in ways outside of the Department of Education. The governor can propose and lobby for education legislation. His ability to influence education policy, though, is limited if the Commissioner and he don’t see eye to eye. Far better if the two looked at education policy the same way and were walking toward the same goals.

Perhaps the new governor of the state will agree with the commissioner’s early education initiatives. But if he doesn’t, he’ll be hard-pressed to stop the education “machine” from moving forward toward that goal.

Education is nearly a one billion dollar industry in Vermont. It is one of the largest expenditures the state makes. Yet the administrators who set education policy and implement education laws by making regulations and dealing with schools are far removed from the people in Vermont. They are not elected, and the head of the education industry is not even appointed by a high-profile elected official. Maybe this needs to change.

This is Libby Sternberg in Rutland.

Libby Sternberg is a free-lance writer, former chair of the Rutland County Republican Party, and is active in education issues.

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