Sunday, January 26, 2020

1889 Institute: Appointing a State Superintendent would improve Education

Appointing a State Superintendent Would Improve Education

Whatever your gripe about public education, Governor Kevin Stitt can do very little about it. That’s not because he doesn’t care or doesn’t have good ideas to improve education. It’s because he lacks the authority needed to shape state education policy: the power to oversee and direct the State Department of Education.

Oklahoma has a dysfunctional government. I don’t mean that we have gridlock, or that we have derelicts in important public offices. I mean that our state government—particularly our executive branch—is not designed to function efficiently or accountably.

Fortunately, reform appears to be at hand. Last year the Legislature granted the Governor the power to hire and fire the leaders of the state’s largest executive agencies, and recently the Governor called for the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction to become an appointed position under the Governor.

This is long overdue.

Consider the recent discovery that many Oklahoma public schools cling to a scientifically discredited method of teaching reading despite ample evidence that it harms students. In a well-functioning government, the Governor would learn of this inexcusable failure and order his employee running the State Department of Education to make an immediate change. The agency head would get to work correcting the situation, or she would get to work updating her resume.

In Oklahoma, the Governor can call the State Superintendent and politely ask her to stop schools under her administration from allowing another generation of students to fall behind. But the Superintendent can tell him to kick rocks.

Likewise, in a functioning government, if agencies refused to carry out policy priorities set by the Legislature, there would be one person to hold accountable—the Governor. And the Legislature would have multiple levers to pull to get him to comply.

An independently elected Superintendent is often more beholden to the education system’s special interests that elect her rather than to the general public, teachers, or children. The only threat the Legislature can make is to cut the education budget, and we’ve seen in recent years how ineffective that is.

Ultimately, what I am describing is accountability to the people as a whole in policymaking. A Governor, as the head of the executive branch of government, would create a vision, set priorities, and direct, and agencies would act accordingly. The Legislature would set policy and have some confidence that the executive branch would execute those policies.

And the people would hold all of these officials accountable on election day.

The Governor wants a constitutional amendment so he can more effectively implement state education policy set by the Legislature. Will Legislators recognize they enhance their own power by strengthening the Governor’s?

Struggling readers in our public schools await their answer.

Benjamin Lepak is 1889 Institute Legal Fellow and can be contacted at


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