Politically Thinking: Governor should appoint commissioner

Next week, the House Education Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to designate the governor, rather than the state board of education, as the appointing authority for Vermont’s education commissioner.

The board of education consists of 10 members, appointed by the governor for six-year terms. During a governor’s elected term of two years, he or she can appoint only three or four members of the state board. The governor would need two terms, or four years, to appoint a majority of the members of the board of education.

The argument for appointing the commissioner indirectly, by the state board, rather than directly by the governor, is to remove politics from the selection of the state’s chief education officer. This argument is not a strong one. The position of education commissioner is inherently political. It should have the accountability and responsibility that accompanies being appointed by the governor.

Governors may have education policy goals that they would like their education commissioner to oversee and implement. Gov. Douglas wanted to cap the growth of local school budgets, while Gov. Shumlin wants to emphasize early childhood education. Since the governor cannot appoint the commissioner under the current arrangements, there is no guarantee that the commissioner will be someone who is committed to carrying out the governor’s priorities.

Education intersects with many other issues in state government. Economic development strategies increasingly depend on a highly skilled and well-trained workforce. Many social services are delivered through the schools, so the education department’s work is closely related to that of the human services agency. School lunch and nutrition programs can be connected with initiatives of the agriculture department. Policymaking on issues such as these will be enhanced by having the education department directly responsible to the governor, with the commissioner serving as a member of the governor’s cabinet.

Education is one of the functions on which the state spends the most dollars, along with health care and human services. When the governor is putting together the state budget, the chief education officer should be sitting around the same table as the other agency heads and commissioners, so there can be effective give-and-take about the spending priorities that should be reflected in the governor’s budget.

In previous legislative sessions, there has been support for making the education commissioner a gubernatorial appointee, but bills to accomplish this goal have never made it all the way through the legislative process. Gov. Shumlin has said that he supports the bill before the House Education Committee. He should work with the legislative leadership to have the bill passed by both the House and the Senate in the current biennium.

In the past, the Vermont School Boards Association has opposed this bill. Some school board members feared that the legislation was a step toward reducing state appropriations for education, or forcing consolidation on local school districts. Local legislators should make clear to the school boards in their constituencies that making the education commissioner a member of the governor’s cabinet will not result in Montpelier directing school boards how to run their affairs.

The Legislature should also remove the statutory requirement that the education commissioner “have special training and experience in educational work.” This provision limits the pool of candidates for the position to school superintendents and other educational administrators. Governors should be able to consider appointing individuals with managerial experience in business, or the nonprofit sector, who could turn out to be excellent education commissioners.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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