Douglas: Education Appointment

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One of the issues currently being debated in Montpelier is whether or
not the Commissioner of Ed should be
appointed by the Governor – and be a member of the Governor’s cabinet –
as opposed
to the established practice of the Board of Education sending a list of
nominees to the Governor. As a former governor himself, commentator Jim
Douglas offers his perspective.

(Douglas) This fall Vermonters
will again cast ballots for candidates seeking to serve as governor for
the next 2 years. He or she is the person who leads in public policy
debates, administers a large bureaucracy and appoints a team of
officials to help carry out the laws. The Constitution says that ‘the
Supreme Executive power shall be exercised by a Governor…’ But wait:
there are some parts of the executive branch that are not directly under
the governor’s control. We elect other state officers, like the auditor
and treasurer, but the Constitution itself specifically provides for
that. There are 2 department heads, though, who are not appointed
directly by the governor, but rather by boards: they are the
commissioners of liquor control and education.
Some years ago
this was customary in state government, but by the 1950s it was obvious
that the structure had become too cumbersome. A commission led by Deane
Davis, president of the National Life Insurance Co., recommended
consolidation into a small number of coordinating agencies. Nothing
happened for a decade until Davis assumed the governorship. He
complained that 150 people reported directly to him; it was unmanageable
and something had to be done. In 1969 the Committee on Administrative
Coordination, on which I would later serve, proposed that most of state
government be collapsed into 8 agencies directly accountable to the
governor. 4 were created immediately, a 5th in the 70s and another just a
few years ago. The remaining 2 were to be public safety and education.
The Department of Public Safety has evolved somewhat as envisioned, but
education remains the outlier.

Bills have been introduced for
decades to allow the governor to appoint the commissioner of education,
but they’ve never passed. Public education is the most expensive public
service we provide. It accounts for $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds, as
much as the state’s entire general and transportation funds combined.
The cost keeps escalating despite shrinking enrollment, the local
governance structure is unwieldy and, perhaps most importantly, our
students aren’t scoring as well as they should on standardized exams.
It’s an area that demands direct gubernatorial leadership.

classic argument against this reform is that the future of our kids
would be politicized. Well, then, I guess we’ve politicized our energy
future, our environmental future, our jobs future, our health future and
the safety of our roads and bridges, among other things. What some call
‘politicization’ I’d call ‘accountability.’ Remember that many
decisions are made by our local school boards, comprised of folks
elected by their neighbors, so it’s not as if all power would flow to
the governor.
A question remains as to the future of the State
Board of Education. Well, it could become advisory, as some have, or it
could retain some regulatory role. Deane Davis is fondly remembered for
his environmental initiatives and fiscal management. We can secure more
of his legacy by agreeing that the governor should appoint the
commissioner of education. It’s an idea whose time has come.

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