Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday proposed an unprecedented centralization of the state's education governance, unveiling plans for a new Department of Education that would consolidate early-childhood to college-level education under the authority of one appointed, cabinet-level secretary.
The proposal would eliminate the boards that recommend education policy in the state and consolidate preschool, K-12 and higher-ed agencies under the Education Department. It would also have the elected superintendent of public instruction report to the new education secretary, a move that some say would require a voter-approved state constitutional amendment.
“Today in our state, we do not have an education system; we have a collection of agencies that deal with the subject of education,” said Gregoire in a news conference announcing her proposal. “I think we ought to talk about what’s good for the student from the day they’re born to the day they get the degree they want to get.”
Wednesday’s announcement came during a week in which the governor was unveiling a range of proposals to be considered by the state Legislature, which convenes Monday in Olympia.
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She said the main goals of the new department, which must gain legislative approval, would be to ensure that students are prepared for kindergarten, make students competitive in math and science, get more minority and low-income students to earn bachelor’s degrees, and ensure that more students graduate with bachelor’s degrees.
The education secretary would work with a state Education Council, whose members also would be appointed by the governor, and a K-12 education ombudsman.
One of the most controversial aspects of the governor’s plan involves eliminating the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and including the superintendent in the K-12 Division of the new department. That means that the elected superintendent would report to the department’s secretary.
In a statement issued Wednesday, current Superintendent Randy Dorn opposed that idea, saying that it was part of an effort to make the governor more powerful.
“I am an elected official; my boss is the people of this state, not the governor,” said Dorn, who complained that he heard about the proposal at the same time the news media did.
Don Bennett, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating board, said the governor’s proposal bucks the longstanding, decentralized approach to education the state has taken.
Education oversight in Olympia is broken up into 10 centers, departments, boards and offices, with some reporting to the governor and some independent of the governor’s authority.
Reaction to Gregoire’s proposal varied among education leaders.
Bennett said it remained to be seen whether this proposal would have implications for local governance of education through superintendents, school boards and university boards of regents around the state, but he said it could institutionalize many of the goals that the Higher Education Coordinating board has already.
Rep. Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup, the top Republican on the House Education Committee, gave Gregoire credit for a bold proposal but said he isn’t sure reorganizing the bureaucracy – “changing the deck chairs” as he put it – would improve education.
“The concept I would be concerned about is creating a mega-agency, kind of a DSHS for students,” he said, referring to the Department of Social and Health Services. “It’s hard for me to see at this point how that’s going to improve outcomes for students in Puyallup or anywhere else.”
Staff writers Debbie Cafazzo and Jordan Schrader and The Associated Press contributed to this report.