Let’s stop electing the Superintendent of Public Instruction

Truly accountable government requires a few elements.

  1. To be legitimate, it must be democratically elected by the people it represents
  2. It must be accessible to citizens and transparent
  3. It needs to be consistent and fair, treating citizens equally and without corruption
  4. Constitutional boundaries and limits must be respected, and those boundaries enforced
  5. Officials’ duties and lines of responsibility should be clear

To that last point, former Washington Research Council president Richard Davis summed up the right approach in the Seattle Times last year: “let accountability follow authority.” Especially when it comes to elected officials, if citizens are to know for what they are holding an official accountable, they need to know what that official is responsible for and what they have the authority to do.

That’s the trouble with the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI), one of our nine statewide elected executive offices in Washington. The Superintendent has very little authority. The position has surprisingly little influence on education policy. On the biggest education issue of the day, the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, the Superintendent has been limited to saying what should happen with no official voice in deciding what does happen.

To be fair to outgoing SPI Randy Dorn, he has consistently stuck up for the full funding of K-12 schools, as McCleary requires. But the reality is he can only advocate; SPI is not a “decider.” Despite the grand title, the office’s authority over K-12 schools and education policy is so limited as to be almost non-existent.

Accountable for what?
So to that question of accountability, for what are voters holding the SPI accountable? Most voters probably assume, based on the title and the fact that it’s prominent enough to be a statewide elected position, that the SPI has more authority than it actually does (or any authority, really).

The office’s actual duties involve tasks such as compiling teacher salary data, tracking graduation and dropout rates, and examining student assessments. These are important, but it’s not clear why we need to elect a ninth statewide elected official to do them. Are voters holding the SPI accountable for the quality of their Measurements of Student Progress reports or how well they maintain the Comprehensive Education Data and Research System? I don’t think so.

Some have responded to the notion of eliminating SPI as an elected office that they support more directly elected officials rather than less, because appointed positions inevitably go to friends and cronies. I understand the point, but when lines of authority are hazy, it ends up undermining accountability because it’s unclear to voters which officials deserve credit or blame for the state of our schools.

The reality is, most voters already look to governors first and foremost when it comes to leadership on K-12 funding and improving schools. When we elect a separate position that sounds like it has authority over these matters but actually doesn’t, all it serves to do is confuse the issue – an issue that 1) most see as the state’s most important duty and 2) the policy area that takes up the largest portion of the state budget, by far.

That’s the opposite of “clear lines of responsibility.” Four House Democrats are sponsoring HJR 4216 this year, which would send a constitutional amendment to the voters to eliminate SPI as a statewide elected office. 4216 will have a committee hearing Feb. 5 at 10:00 a.m. in Olympia. It may seem counterintuitive to some, but this move is smart one that will mean more, not less, accountability on school performance.

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