As the Kentucky Board of Education wades through the process of selecting a new state education commissioner, most of the public’s attention has focused on the fact no in-state applicants were selected as finalists.
What has been absent from the discussion so far is that most of those responsible for choosing the next state education head will have a very short relationship with the candidate they select.
Seven of the 11 members of the Board of Education likely won’t be reappointed once their terms end in April, yet they are intimately involved in selecting a candidate who could serve for years to come.
As political appointees, board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the House and Senate to serve four-year terms. Terms are staggered to create continuity across time, but changes in the governor’s office decrease the likelihood of reappointment.
In April 2008, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, appointed four new members to the board, replacing four members put in place by his Republican predecessor, Ernie Fletcher.
Fletcher made the same type of wholesale change after he came into office in 2004 by selecting seven replacements for those board members selected four years earlier by former Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat.
Recent changes in the state education commissioner’s post and the governor’s office have put the board and the governor at odds in recent years. The search in 2007 to replace departing Commissioner Gene Wilhoit, who had been in the post for six years, created a such a conflict.
At that time, the board — all appointed by Gov. Fletcher, who was on his way out of office — ignored a request by newly elected Gov. Beshear to restart the selection process. Beshear contended the board’s search was not broad enough and the state would benefit from making a fresh appeal for applicants.
Now in the midst of another commissioner search, the majority of the board likely won’t work longer than a few months with the new commissioner.
That’s not to suggest outgoing board members would sabotage this process because they were appointed by a governor from a different political party.
But this does create another possible political conflict over a position that this state has attempted to make less political.
With four-year appointments for board members staggered by two years, a governor can have a board filled solely with his appointees by just more than midway through his first term in office. That might allow for the creation and implementation of a cohesive educational policy, but it can create conflict and disjointedness with a change in administrations.
One solution to be considered would be lengthening board member terms. States with appointed boards of education have varying term lengths, with some board members serving terms as long as nine years, as is the case in Mississippi and Tennessee.
Longer terms could help avoid the frequent turnover that Kentucky can see with changes in the governor’s office.
Extending the terms to six years and staggering appointments every two years would create more continuity. A governor could leave an imprint on the board without the body being overhauled every time a new governor takes office.
With the Kentucky Education Reform Act, the state made the education commissioner position an appointed instead of elected position to help remove politics from the process. Lengthening the terms for members could accomplish the same goal for the board.
Kentucky could welcome its next education commissioner when the Board of Education meets next week. But the end of this selection process should begin an examination of how to avoid these types of conflicts in the future.
Monday, July 13, 2009
This editorial from the Messenger-Inquirer by way of KSBA: