Gov. Chris Gregoire said Wednesday her proposal to restructure Washington's education system under one cabinet-level department has touched a nerve in Olympia as she criticized the current organization of more than a dozen departments, boards and committees as ineffective for the state's children.
Making a rare appearance before a legislative committee, Gregoire said she had an “aha moment” last summer while examining why the state’s education system was not improving. Her conclusion: The state has education silos instead of an education system.
“The system is not working. We have to do something,” she said after her testimony.
Under her proposal, starting next year, the governor would nominate a secretary of education, who would need confirmation from the state Senate. Gregoire said she foresees a nationwide search for a professional to head the department, someone with vision and leadership skills but also expertise in education.
The governor’s proposal would establish a new cabinet-level department of education that would oversee all the state’s education departments, committee and boards, from early learning to college.
Gregoire said the people of Washington hold her accountable for state education, despite the separately elected superintendent.
“If the public is holding me accountable, make me accountable,” she said.
Sen. Rodney Tom has taken the idea one step further and has proposed eliminating the superintendent of public instruction as an elected position. His idea would require a constitutional amendment because the superintendent’s job was established by the state constitution.
Since senators and other interested people had less than a day to read her 97-page bill, they didn’t offer a lot of specific comments on the governor’s plan during the Senate committee hearing, but general opinions were expressed, both for and against the idea of consolidation and whether the state’s schools chief should be elected or appointed.
Among those in opposition is Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, who said the people deserve an independent voice for education not beholden to the governor or his or her budget.
He said more coordination between departments would be a positive step, but he thinks the governor’s proposal goes too far.
Dorn said he doubts Tom’s proposed constitutional amendment would succeed.
“I don’t think the public is going to say we want to give away our vote,” Dorn said.
Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, said she served with Dorn as a lawmaker in the early 1990s when they were just starting a major education reform and accountability process. But the achievement gap between students from different races and economic backgrounds is still growing and too few Washington kids are going on to college, Eide said, adding it’s time for more change.
Representatives of the Washington State School Directors Association, which represents local school boards, the Washington Association of School Administrators and the Association of Washington School Principals all spoke against Tom’s proposals to eliminate the independently elected superintendent. The League of Education Voters spoke in favor of it.
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said she was excited to be the primary sponsor for the governor’s proposal.
“I really think the time has come to have a seamless education system,” McAuliffe.
She added, however, that the idea is still a work in progress and she looked forward to hearing from voters and education groups what they think of the bill after they’ve had time to read and digest all 97 pages. McAuliffe said the governor told her if she and her committee didn’t like the bill, they should change it.