Superintendent of Public Instruction: Jack O'Connell

IF STATE GOVERNMENT WERE BETTER organized, this endorsement would be unnecessary. (So would a lot of other editorials, but that's another matter.) California holds to a strangely fragmented schools system, with an elected superintendent of public instruction and a governor-appointed secretary of education.

Most of the power goes to the elected superintendent, who runs the Department of Education. The education secretary, meanwhile … well, no one has quite figured out that office, except that it produces innovative ideas about public education from time to time, then watches them get ignored.

A more efficient system would set up one strong line of accountability running from the governor to his appointed secretary, who would run the department and act as education advisor. Public education is by far the biggest and most expensive state operation; it's nonsensical not to have the governor in charge of that — and to judge his performance in large part on how well the schools have done.

The governor already has extensive power over the budget. That budget and his legislative agenda should be aligned with standards and goals that he sets for the schools and the operations he sets in place to get them there. Otherwise, as happened last year, the governor can push for lower budgets and say the problem isn't money but how the schools are run. Easy for him to say, because he doesn't have to run them.

But because Californians for the time being must deal with the cracked system they have, they may as well reelect the incumbent, Jack O'Connell.

O'Connell has proved a steady and prudent steward of the department. He turned around its once-grudging attitude toward charter schools by setting up a charter office. He upheld the state's high school exit exam and rigorous proficiency standards when it might have been easier politically to lower the bar and pretend more students were succeeding. But he has been less bold about pushing for pointed changes in the state's more troubled schools. It's going to take more than standards to narrow the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students.

O'Connell faces four challengers, all teachers and none with the kind of administrative, political or statewide experience it takes to do this job. Better to stay with the incumbent — and hope that before Californians have to choose another schools superintendent, the job will have disappeared altogether.