Too many education cooks

For the two decades that California has had a secretary of education, the position has never made much sense. Appointed by the governor, with a staff of a dozen or so people, this post has no real authority because the state Constitution places responsibility for the schools under the elected superintendent of public instruction, the job recently assumed by Tom Torlakson. The secretary’s office has accomplished little and has had more than its share of turnover. Gov. Jerry Brown was right to get rid of it; that was an easy save of almost $2 million a year.

But to be completely clear, the secretary of education wasn’t the real problem. The underlying mistake is contained in the Constitution, which mandates an elected superintendent. Ideally, Brown would be able to do away with that post and the appointed Board of Education, bring the Education Department under his wing and streamline the bulky and often-contradictory administration of the public schools.

The state’s budget crisis gives California an opportunity to reexamine this awkward sharing of powers. The secretary has traditionally advised the governor on legislation and acted as his spokesperson on the schools; the state board, appointed by the governor, draws up education regulations and adopts textbooks and curriculum standards. The state superintendent, who oversees the giant Education Department, is supposed to carry out all these directives.


Here’s one example of how badly the arrangement works: In 2008, the board, pushed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, approved a requirement that all eighth-graders take algebra. Former state Supt. Jack O'Connell, concerned about how many students were unprepared for such a requirement, sued the board. A judge blocked the requirement. We didn’t like the requirement either, because it would’ve set students up for failure. But the lack of clear direction for the schools was worse.

Another example: Among the reasons California still lacks a fully operational student-tracking database, a basic tool of modern school accountability, is that the Finance Department blocked its progress during interagency squabbles over who would control it. The Finance Department was under the governor; the Education Department under the superintendent.

If a cabinet-level official were given actual authority over education, as is the case in the federal government, the governor could craft a coherent educational policy, lobby the Legislature to support it and ensure that it was carried out as conceived. A streamlined bureaucracy would save time and money, and even more important, it would more effectively set a course for the state’s public schools.