The majority of your state tax dollars—more than all other state agencies combined—is spent through the Kansas State Department of Education. Yet the KSDE occupies a small building in Topeka on the corner of 10th and Quincy. Only a few stories tall, it takes up barely a quarter of a block because your tax money for the cost of Kansas K-12 education is disbursed across Kansas in local school districts. Every Kansas citizen should therefore be interested in who is running the KSDE. With current Commissioner Alexa Posny leaving for Washington, DC, who will take her place and what pressures does a Kansas Commissioner of Education face?
There are 50 states and 50 different ways of managing state educational policy. Usually there is a state "board of education" that makes policy and there is an education executive in charge of running day-to-day affairs. According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, two states (Minnesota and Wisconsin) have no state board. The chief education office is called either a Commissioner or a State Superintendent of Instruction. While state constitutions give different degrees of responsibility to the boards and school chiefs in each state, there are some common patterns.
In twelve states (AK, AR, CT, FL, IL, KY, MD, MA, MO, RI, VT, and WV), the governor appoints the state board and the board then appoints the state commissioner or superintendent. School leadership and policy can turn over with the election of each new governor. The education chief is vulnerable each election cycle and has to run the agency with an eye to the politics of both the governor and the board.
Eleven states (AZ, CA, GA, ID, IN, MT, NC, ND, OK, OR, and WY) have a state board appointed by the governor but the state school officer is independently elected. Such a state superintendent has considerable independence in managing the agency, although policy-making rests in varying degrees with the state board. However, an elected superintendent has to make decisions with an eye to re-election, and there is election-year turnover.
In eight states (DE, IA, ME, NH, NJ, PA, SD, TN, and VA) and Puerto Rico, the governor appoints both the state board and the commissioner or state superintendent. This can be the most politically entangled and involve the most upheaval each election year, although some have rotations to dampen the effect. There is a mix of board appointments and elections in four other states (LA, OH, WA, and MS).
Kansas is one of eight states (AL, CO, HI, KS, MI, NE, NV, and UT) that have an elected state board of education that then appoints the chief state education officer. Kansas has a strong populist tradition and despite several attempts to change the system, we are always going to elect five of our ten state board members each two years, to serve four-year terms. This continuity in policy is not found in many states.
The Kansas Commissioner of Education does not have to act with an eye to re-election or worry about re-election. If there are no major swings in the politics of new KSBE members, a Kansas Commissioner can serve a long time, manage crises, and carry through with administrative reorganization and development over many years. Commissioner Andy Tompkins served for many years across many new boards and through the evolution-creationism battles. The Board issues of the day were local control, routine program approvals, and a reasonable amount of reform measures.
Today, the KSDE Commissioner faces terrabytes of NCLB reporting requirements tied to Title money, entering the high stakes "race to the top" for billions in federal pork, dramatic budget constraints (the Kansas Legislature controls the money) and possible major school consolidation, and pressure from special interest groups (from parents with autistic children to high numbers of English language learners). And the Commissioner must run this huge department while major policy decisions are in the hands of the Board, and while the federal government is attempting to takeover education nationwide.
Searching for a new commissioner will take many months. We should wish that new Commissioner the best of luck. And I recommend he or she brings a prescription for Prosac for the departmental water fountains and Board Room.