Commentary: Illinois governors should run education at the state level | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Illinois governors should run education at the state level

Mar 12, 2009

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2009 - Let's do it right this time. Quit tweaking. Focus accountability. Put Illinois governors clearly in charge of education at the state level.

It will require a leap of faith and a constitutional amendment.

We must hope Illinoisans don't see the likes of Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan for at least a century. And we must dislodge the 40-year-old State Board of Education, founded on the fairy tale that supposedly independent policymakers would quarantine the schools from partisan politics even though governors and lawmakers fund them and wield power well beyond the purse.

Just ask Ted Sanders. When he was the board-selected state education superintendent in the mid-1980s, he got a call from Gov. Jim Thompson, then hotly pursuing a fourth term. The governor said something like, "Don't take this personally, Ted, but I'm going to attack you tomorrow."

Sanders had been urging small school districts to take advantage of new financial incentives to consolidate or merge. Thompson, lawmakers and Sanders had included them in a comprehensive reform package to streamline bloated bureaucracy and make it more responsive.

But Thompson's opponent, Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson III, had been scoring points by fanning fears of rural Illinoisans who saw a consolidation monster swallowing the schools that gave them their identities. So, the governor decided to defuse the issue and squash the initiative by blaming Sanders and the State Board while shrouding his own involvement.

That kind of distancing is not what constitutional framers envisioned in 1970. Until then, Illinois had been electing state school superintendents. By having the school chief appointed by a theoretically independent board, the framers believed the lead educational agency would be purged of political agendas and posturing.

But the Sanders episode, though dramatically instructive, was hardly stark. It is elected officials who have found the so-called separation most beneficial. Although board members are appointed by governors and confirmed by senators, the politicians have highlighted the board's independence when the agency is under siege and breached it when seeking patronage roosts for supporters and grants for community organizations.

When students don't perform, who bears responsibility? The kids? Parents? Teachers? Principals? Local school superintendents and the boards that hire them? Regional superintendents? The state superintendent and the State Board? Governors and legislators who universally extol education but tolerate inadequate funding for thousands of students and snub reforms to help tax dollars are spent effectively?

No matter what happens in Springfield, responsibility will remain somewhat blurred. But that is no excuse for failure to seek more accountability. The state's chief executive and a secretary of education directly reporting to the governor should be primarily responsible for policies affecting kindergarten through graduate school.

Five years ago, Rod Blagojevich also advocated having the governor take charge. But the right idea was perverted by the wrong governor. He flouted the constitution instead of asking voters to change it. He and lawmakers concocted legislation that empowered him to control the state board by appointing new members. It permitted him to install his acolytes in key positions with the board's bureaucracy but still distance himself whenever convenient. Indeed, Blagojevich's people were in the thick of awarding contracts that bore no signature immediately traceable to the governor.

Now the House has overwhelmingly voted to further befog accountability by inserting the attorney general and the secretary of state into a convoluted process of selecting board members. Why not let a Statehouse tour guide join the fun?

A former state education superintendent was fond of saying, "If it ain't broke, break it."

Even though it already is broken, let's fix it anyway.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.