The House Education Committee is considering a bill that would allow the governor to appoint Vermont’s top education official. Gov. Peter Shumlin is a proponent of the change.
Under the plan, which is still under discussion and has not yet been drafted into legislation, the Department of Education would become an Agency, and the chief officer of that governmental entity would become part of the governor’s cabinet.
Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, confirmed today that her committee is considering new options for education leadership in Vermont. Donovan said the State Board of Education, which now has the authority to set and oversee regulations and appoint the Department Commissioner, would play an advisory role.
Donovan expects the Committee will weigh the implications of changing the education governance structure when they return from the Town Meeting Day break next week. A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for 5 to 7:30 p.m. March 9.
Critics, including a member of the State Board of Education, say the power shift from the State Board of Education to the governor’s office will politicize the role; backers say education shouldn’t be treated any differently than the Department of Public Service or the Agency of Natural Resources, both of which have hand-picked top officials.
I think it would be helpful to have that department be accountable to elected officials. Anyone who thinks the office isn’t politicized now, isn’t paying attention. These are all political officials.”
~ Speaker Shap Smith
“Education is our most important obligation in a democratic society,” Shumlin said in a phone interview Tuesday night. “It’s important for the governor to be held accountable for education quality and cost. Under the current system, governors don’t have a commissioner or secretary they appoint, therefore the education system is on its own.”
Shumlin said whether the title is secretary or commissioner, he believes the governor should have the authority to fill the position. He said a handpicked gubernatorial official wouldn’t be any more politicized than appointments for the Agency of Natural Resources, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development or the Public Service Board.
“Why is this one different?” Shumlin asked.
Shumlin said the education chief can make “a real difference” policy wise.
“I think it’s an important area where the governor should be able to have someone (in the Cabinet) and have total confidence (in that person),” Shumlin said.
But given the strength of school boards in Vermont, wouldn’t an appointee’s authority be limited? “You can argue that regardless who (or how an official) is appointed,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin said he would consider the current commissioner, Armando Vilaseca, for the new role. “It’s not about Armando,” the governor said.
House Speaker Shap Smith supports placing the ed chief in the governor’s Cabinet.
“We don’t necessarily have control over education policy,” Smith said. “I think it would be helpful to have that department be accountable to elected officials. Anyone who thinks the office isn’t politicized now, isn’t paying attention. These are all political officials.”
Jill Remick, the communications director for the Department of Education, said the real decision-making authority lies with local school boards. “Be careful what you wish for,” Remick said. “The state board is concerned about political appointments. The question is, without a state board, would popular ideas happen quicker without the benefit of a board and commissioner?”
Donovan said the Douglas administration politicized the Department by labeling school board members and teachers “special interests,” and she said, he harangued the public about how much the system cost taxpayers.
Stephan Morse, a member of the Board and former House Speaker, doesn’t support the change. He said after serving on the Board for two years, he thinks the system works best with a board-appointed commissioner, in part because the selection is made by a group of people who are geographically representative of the state. The board also maintains a level of accessibility to teachers, students, parents and taxpayers.
“The Vermont system is unique compared to other states,” Morse said. “If you put it under an agency structure, you could have a new governor every two years, and a new commissioner or secretary every two years, and you would lose consistency in education policy that way.”
Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, says in other states the gubernatorial appointees for the commissioner or secretary are more often subject to political whims. About half of all ed chiefs nationwide are appointed by a board. Welburn said if a governor doesn’t see results and needs a scapegoat, then that person can become a political target.
“Statistically the highest turnover among commissioners is among those who are appointed by governors,” Welburn said.