Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to create a Department of Education directly responsible to the governor is an idea that merits serious consideration in the Legislature.
At $13.7 billion in Gregoire’s budget proposal, K-12 is the largest slice of the state’s general fund budget pie. Add in another $2.67 billion for state colleges and universities, and education makes up more than half of the state’s $32 billion budget.
Yet the education bureaucracy is not under the governor’s direct control.
Does that make sense?
Gregoire surprised the education establishment last week with her proposal to consolidate the state’s entire education system — from early childhood through college — into a single, cabinet level agency directly accountable to the governor.
Making her case at a news conference, Gregoire said, “Today in our state, we do not have an education system; we have a collection of agencies that deal with the subject of education. 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.”
The governor’s reform plan has merit and deserves a thorough airing in the Legislature.
In reality, it’s unlikely that lawmakers will give the governor what she wants this year. It’s substantive reform and the Legislature is not prone to making drastic changes in a single legislative session. Usually it takes a couple of sessions to refine restructuring plans before lawmakers feel comfortable enough to vote “yes.”
Besides, the 2011 Legislature must be laser focused on the $4.6 billion budget shortfall and how to preserve key state programs and services amid looming budget reductions.
While the governor’s proposal is not likely to pass this year, the very least lawmakers can do is to start the conversation, collect the data, see what’s working in other states and begin to narrow the options. We would argue that the state’s education system is broken today. Look at test scores and the Legislature’s thrashing about with reform efforts. The fact that Washington didn’t qualify for federal “Race to the Top” funding is an indictment of the education system today.
The question is whether a new governing structure will improve efficiency and improve public education in this state. Only when we know the answer to those questions, will it be time to proceed with reforms.
In his campaign for Superintendent of Public Instruction, candidate Randy Dorn said education should be under the control of the governor. Dorn said he would support a constitutional amendment to eliminate the school superintendent as an elected office. He seems to be singing a different tune as the current office holder.
Dorn said, “The governor can create any staff position she wants. Her proposal, however, would require the state superintendent to report to a new Secretary of Education. I am an elected official: my boss is the people of this state, not the governor. That is state law, explicit in Article III of the state constitution. Would the governor also suggest that the other elected officials report to a governor-appointed official?”
That doesn’t sound like the same candidate Dorn who embraced constitutional reform.
Under the governor’s proposal, 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. Don Bennett, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating board, said the governor’s proposal bucks the long-standing, decentralized approach to education the state has taken.
Under today’s structure, education oversight in Olympia is divided up into 10 centers, departments, boards and offices, with some reporting to the governor and some independent of the governor’s authority.
The question is, which governing structure works best for students?
Will taking control mean the education budget is spent more wisely? Will we get better outcomes, and how will we measure progress? How much money would consolidation actually save.
The governor’s plan certainly merits serious consideration, but the devil’s in the details. How would all this work? What exactly would be under the governor’s control versus the control of local school boards and district officials? Would consolidation, as Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, fears, create an unwieldy new bureaucracy akin to DSHS?
It may well be that this proposal needs to occur in steps, first the consolidation of K-12 agencies under one director, then putting colleges and universities under another director. But we won’t know what’s best for this state until questions are asked and answers offered. Lawmakers owe it to the public — and more importantly, to students — to at least start the conversation.