Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Appoint state school chief? 'It's all about leadership'

After four years in the Legislature, Mike Dudgeon decided to boldly go where others have gone -- just not succeeded -- before.

The Johns Creek Republican wants the state school superintendent to be appointed rather than elected as now. That means a constitutional amendment, a high hurdle to clear for an idea Georgia’s voters have rejected in the past.

“Right now,” Dudgeon explained in a recent interview, “you elect a superintendent who is primarily an administrator, not a policy maker. So in some ways people, I think, believe … they’re getting more of a say than they actually are in policy.

“If a superintendent campaigns on policy A, B or C, he can have some influence there, but he doesn’t have that decision-making power. That’s in the state (school) board’s hands and the Legislature’s hands.”

Dudgeon’s proposal would, after the current, four-year term of recently elected Superintendent Richard Woods expires, make that position a gubernatorial appointment. (He made a point to praise Woods’ “attitude toward cooperation” so far and to say “this is not about” him.) The state school board would no longer be appointed by the governor and instead would be chosen by legislators.

There might be cost savings for the state if the next governor didn’t feel the need to maintain a separate Office of Student Achievement in parallel to the Department of Education. But Dudgeon mostly emphasized the potential -- and great need -- for leadership and alignment.

“It’s all about leadership,” he said. “The governor appoints the superintendent, and they run the state DOE. They’re executives … they should be aligned together. You shouldn’t have the superintendent and the governor saying different things; you can’t have leadership when that happens.

“At the same time, the Legislature is setting policy. We’re passing all the legislation that says what the schools are supposed to do, and the state board just takes that and does the detailed work behind that policy. So if the Legislature is appointing the state board, then we’re aligned on policy. The governor and the superintendent are aligned on leadership. So that to me is the ideal case.”

To voters who worry they’d no longer have a voice in setting education policy, Dudgeon offered this counterargument:

“Today, the citizens of Georgia vote for their local school-board member, they vote for their state House member, their state senator, the lieutenant governor and governor, all of which have a very strong hand in education policy. To vote for another person -- I understand why some people feel that’s very important. In my mind, it’s better to have more accountability for the leaders you are electing for policy than to have so many different hands in the pie that there is no accountability and leadership.”

That last word, if you hadn’t already noticed, was one he repeated often during our conversation.

“It’s so hard to do things without consistent leadership,” he said. “If you’re into public education -- you’re a teacher, you’re a principal -- and you’re looking to what the state is saying, and you’re hearing four different messages from the state, it’s just hard for you to buy in.”

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.