Elected vs. appointed state chiefs

Over the last weekend, the Arizona Republic published an op-ed by conservative education writer Matthew Ladner, arguing for an appointed state superintendent. Arizona has an elected superintendent, like California. Florida has a commissioner of education appointed by the state board of education, itself appointed by the governor; before 2002, the position was elected. The majority of state superintendents or education commissioners are appointed, either directly by the governor (as in Virginia) or indirectly by a state board (as in Florida). Arizona and California are in a distinct minority.

Ladner’s op-ed mixes two different arguments.1 Let me focus for now on the argument over the selection of a state K-12 education chief. I don’t see appointing superintendents as something that automatically leads to better education policy, in contrast with electing them. An appointment regime doesn’t even guarantee political agreeability: witness the current spat over the Common Core between Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and the state’s appointed superintendent, John White.2

On the other hand, there is one critical argument in favor of appointed superintendents/commissioners: separately-elected executives create more chaos by the structure of separate elections. For the past 20 years, we’ve seen what happens in Washington as a fractious political system finds and uses as many veto points as possible, and that’s just in the legislative branch. Imagine if we also had national elections for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the whole cabinet. There would be the foreign policy of the president, the foreign policy of the Secretary of State, and the foreign policy of the Secretary of Defense, and each would claim political legitimacy. But you don’t have to imagine. You can look at California, where former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Pete Wilson had his own Secretary of Child Development and Education to compete with the elected Superintendent. It was sort of a Two Education Popes period for California for twenty years, a bit of extra mishegas that was a symptom of California’s woes at the time. Jerry Brown abandoned the separate structure when he became governor in 2011, in part to save money and in part because he thought he could work well with the elected superintendent, Tom Torlakson. If Marshall Tuck beats Torlakson this fall, that could well change, though I doubt Brown would resurrect the two-popes policy of his predecessor.

That split in political authority is not just division of powers; once it’s in the executive branch, it’s escape. For 35 years, many state governors have won campaigns on education promises, and I doubt you can find a candidate for governor anywhere who wouldn’t happily wear the label “education governor.” Ladner is correct: we should be able to hold politicians accountable for the promises they make when campaigning, and part of that requires giving them the authority to enact what they promise. Within constitutional limits, that is as true for bad policy ideas as good ones.

For now, I live in a state with an elected superintendent. I’ll vote in both the primary and general election, since that’s the current structure and I’d rather have the best superintendent possible under the current system. That’s not to say it’s the preferable system. Even or especially if I disagree with a governor, I want her or him to have clear responsibility for implementing K-12 education policy.

(Note: Edited to correct the chronology. Pete Wilson owns the credit/shame for creating the two education popes chaos in California.)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader, and sign up for my irregular newsletter below!


  1. The majority of the op-ed focuses on demographic issues rather than the governance issue. []
  2. Louisiana has an indirect system; the state board appoints the superintendent. []

One response to “Elected vs. appointed state chiefs”

  1. N Shrubs

    There are pros and cons to both systems. Both systems create the ideological churn that I wish could be avoided – out with the latest party ideology, in with the new, and subsequently all the newest education fads/party promises, and the whiplash that teachers face each time a new candidate takes office. Yes, the appointed one does allow for a more consistent message (generally) about education, but as you pointed out (LA), that can backfire, and then things get really nasty.

    My preference of these two is still for the elected superintendent for a couple of reasons. 1) This does still leave the a system of checks and balances in the hands of voters. (This is especially important in Arizona, where there is a lot of corruption, especially in Maricopa County, but also very much at the state level.) The fact that this makes some of the powerful elite in AZ unhappy makes me happy. They are not comfortable with it and would like to see it changed so that they can control all. 2) Arizona has had some whack-a-doodle governors in its time, and the present governor is no exception. I would hate to see who they might think is qualified to preside over education in AZ. As bad as the elected candidates have been, I can see an appointed candidate being even worse. If you want extremists, AZ has them in spades. At least an election keeps the most extreme ones out of the picture.

    That said, the last few AZ Supes have all still been pretty worthless, furthering their political agenda (anti-immigrant, charter-promoting, voucher-promoting, kickbacks to the charter buddies, special tech contracts to friends and families), and using the State Supe spot as a stepping stone to AG or Governor. My preference would be to change the requirements of the State Supe position to include teaching experience in K-12, which would make the position a little less available to the career politicians looking to make a name for themselves (or do favors for their buddies who run Great Hearts and Basis charters), and a little more open to the serious educator who’d like to focus on what’s important for schools and kids and teachers. But then, what do I know, I’m just a teacher.

    (having issues with the Captcha code token file)