Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gregoire's plan to revamp education administration is unconstitutional

This morning, Governor Chris Gregoire unveiled a plan to change how public schools in the State of Washington are administered. The plan — which is partly billed as a cost-saving move — would combine several state agencies into one Department of Education, led by a secretary appointed by the governor.

Gregoire's policy brief argues (PDF):
Our students deserve a world-class education at every step in the process — in preschool, elementary through high school, an apprenticeship program or college. Their future and personal success rely on it. Our economy and way of life depend on it.
If that's true, then we'd better abolish Tim Eyman and BP's Initiative 1053, and fast. Its undemocratic, unconstitutional shackles are slowly going to squeeze our common wealth to death. Without our common wealth, we have no way of providing any kind of education to our youth, period.

This document predictably does not address any of the underlying issues that are threatening our ability to collectively fulfill our paramount duty as a state. Instead, it is concerned with (over)emphasizing the value of making governance changes, which would have nothing more than a cosmetic effect on the real problems. Consequently, this proposal is more of a distraction than a solution.

We're all for optimizing government, but that's not what this proposal is about. Its architects use corporate jargon like "world-class" and "system" to dress up what is essentially a power grab. They contend, somewhat convincingly, that students are not well-served by the current administrative structure that we have in place for our many schools and universities:
But we do not have an education system today. In fact, our multiple education entities — including early learning, kindergarten through 12th grade and higher education agencies — spend too much time trying to coordinate work and connect policies. Priorities are often not shared. Because of this, students are not at the center of every decision made and every action taken.
(Emphasis is theirs).

It's certainly possible that we might be able to save some money by simplifying governance, but this proposal is not going to drastically improve our schools. Ultimately, it's small potatoes. As I said above, a distraction rather than a solution.

The authors nauseatingly use the word system some fifteen times, mostly in boldface font, as if they're afraid people reading the six-page policy brief are going to suddenly forget their chosen theme. (And no, I'm not kidding... you can count the number of instances yourself).

The phrase "school system" isn't inherently awful (we've used it ourselves) but "system", by itself, is not an appropriate descriptor of our schools. To us, the word system evokes an assembly line at a manufacturing plant. It's industrial-sounding. It's not what we would use to describe our vision for public education.

Similarly, the use of "world-class" in the first sentence and "now, more than ever" several paragraphs later stick out like sore thumbs. It's not unusual for policy briefs to be filled with buzzwords and cliches, but we see them so often that we've become rather sick of them. Longtime readers know that we have a strong aversion to platitudes; it's why we're so fond of the Banished Words List, which we post every New Year's Day. ("World class" happens to be an oldie, and it actually appeared on the Banished Words List twice — once in 1982, and again in 1993; whereas "now, more than ever" was banished in 2003.)

This plan might have had some merit if it wasn't primarily about consolidating the governor's power. It probably would have turned out much better if Gregoire and her team had consulted with Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn before finalizing it. But they did not. They kept him in the dark.

Probably they did so because their proposal, if enacted, would basically strip Dorn of his authority, transferring it to Gregoire.

Not surprisingly, Dorn isn't too thrilled. From his statement, issued in response to Gregoire's press conference:
I’m concerned, first of all, that I heard the proposal the same time as the media did. The conversation I had with the Governor this morning did not reflect what she said in her press conference. And in fact, members of the media were given more specific information than I was given by the Governor.

More than that, though, is that this isn’t a new idea. I’ve been a legislator, and every governor I’ve known has wanted more power. They’ve tried to abolish offices. That is not in our Constitution. Ours is direct election by the citizens of this great state.
And indeed, our Constitution is very clear in specifying that the Superintendent of Public Instruction is in charge of public education. From Article III:
SECTION 22. SUPERINTENDENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION, DUTIES AND SALARY. The superintendent of public instruction shall have supervision over all matters pertaining to public schools, and shall perform such specific duties as may be prescribed by law. He shall receive an annual salary of twenty-five hundred dollars, which may be increased by law, but shall never exceed four thousand dollars per annum.
All emphasis is mine. (That last sentence has a line through it because it was repealed by constitutional amendment. Since the 1980s, the Superintendent's salary has been set by a citizens' commission.)

If Gregoire wants to streamline administration and eliminate redundancy, why doesn't she simply propose creating a Department of Education led by the Superintendent of Public Instruction?

There is precedent for such a structure: the Commissioner of Public Lands (currently Peter Goldmark) heads the Department of Natural Resources.

The answer is that she wants more power. If you look at the last page of her policy brief, you'll see a chart outlining the new "system" she and her advisors want to create. The top level in the chart reads "GOVERNOR". The three levels under it are:
  • K-12 Education Omsbudsman (appointed by the governor)
  • Secretary of Education (appointed by the governor)
  • State P-20 Education Council (governor appoints)
Notice a pattern?

The Superintendent of Public Instruction, amazingly, isn't even on the chart! It's as if Gregoire and her team want to pretend that that office doesn't exist any longer.

In trying to draw Randy Dorn out of the picture, Gregoire is committing the same sin as Tim Eyman: Ignoring the clear and unambiguous provisions in our Constitution which comprise our plan of government.

The changes Gregoire wants to make cannot legally be done by statute. This proposal, to avoid an immediate and well-founded court challenge, would need to be implemented via constitutional amendment.

Therein lies Gregoire's problem. Even if the governor could convince every Democratic legislator to back her proposal, she still wouldn't have enough votes. To submit a constitutional amendment to the people for ratification requires a two-thirds vote of each house, which means Republican votes would be necessary. But Republicans are sure to oppose this proposal. They'll say it's a power grab. And considering how it was drafted, they won't be wrong.

Whenever we at NPI evaluate policy, we consider carefully the future ramifications. We're long-term thinkers. And long-term, we don't like the idea of the governor having so much power over public education. Our Framers thought education was so important that they created a position in the executive branch specifically to oversee our schools: the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Who are we to dismantle the checks and balances they created?

Gregoire may legitimately want to improve public education, but she is going about it in the wrong way. Her proposal doesn't acknowledge that while the governor's mansion has been occupied for a Democrat for nearly three decades, that won't necessarily be the case in the future. Does she really want a Republican politician like Dino Rossi or Rob McKenna (who wants to be her successor) to have the power to appoint all the people who oversee our schools!?

As far as we're concerned, this proposal is dead on arrival. It's a nonstarter. Creating a Department of Education led by the Superintendent of Public Instruction is an idea that we could support. As I said earlier, we're all for optimizing government. But this is not a well-thought out plan for making government more effective. It's an unjustified power grab. And it ignores our real problems.

Dorn says it well:
What troubles me most, though, is that this feels like a smokescreen. The most pressing issue we face is lack of funding. In February 2009, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that basic education is underfunded in the state – and that ruling was based on financial data from two years before. Since then, education has been cut even further. Consolidating commissions and eliminating agencies isn’t a bad idea, but it takes time and energy away from much more pressing issues.
Exactly. We are in perilous times, and we need our elected officials to provide unconventional leadership. Gregoire is unfortunately fixated on gimmicks and shortcuts which won't do much except temporarily alleviate symptoms. We need her to be focused on tackling the root causes of the problems afflicting our economy, our environment, and our well-being.

Sadly, it appears she's not up to the challenge.


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