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Douglas: Education Appointment

02/15/12 7:55AM By Jim Douglas
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(Host) 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.

The 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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