Kyle Wingfield

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

Remind me why we elect our school superintendent?

Here, in its entirety, is what the Georgia Constitution has to say about what the state school superintendent does:

“There shall be a State School Superintendent, who shall be the executive officer of the State Board of Education,” and “the General Assembly shall prescribe the powers (and) duties” of the office.

That’s it.

There are more references in the Constitution to the fact the superintendent is elected than what he or she actually does after being elected. Legislators have indeed given this office certain duties: chiefly, to carry out the policies of the state school board, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Maybe we should rethink whether it makes sense to keep this as an elected office.

In the election campaigns that ended last week, we heard a lot from the candidates for superintendent about such subjects as Common Core and charter schools. Of much more consequence was what the candidates for governor said about education.

By tradition it has been the governor who wrought the biggest educational changes in this state. Joe Frank Harris pushed the Quality Basic Education Act. Zell Miller created the HOPE scholarship. Roy Barnes sought to curb teacher tenure. Sonny Perdue promoted raising the state’s standards, leading to Common Core. Nathan Deal championed the charter schools amendment.

When superintendents have entered the headlines, it has often been because they clashed with governors: Linda Schrenko with Barnes, and John Barge with Deal, to name a couple of examples.

Whether Common Core is eventually scrapped or maintained, it most likely have more to do with the way Deal works in tandem with the state school board than with anything newly elected Superintendent Richard Woods does. Ditto for an overhaul of the QBE funding formula. That’s no knock on Woods, just the limitations of his office.

The most power the superintendent wields may lie in managing the day-to-day operations of the Department of Education. That creates an urge to cater to the bureaucracy, which is the last thing this state needs.

None of this points to an obvious way in which an elected school superintendent holds a kind of independent authority that tends toward educational progress. If anything, elected superintendents may be tempted to boost their own political profiles by opposing the governor or other power brokers.

Besides Georgia, only a dozen other states elect their state school superintendents. The rest, including many of the nation’s highest-performing states educationally, have superintendents who are appointed by the governor.

Moving to an appointed superintendent would be a tough sell that has failed in the past. It would require two-thirds of legislators and half the voters in a referendum to approve a constitutional amendment. Voters don’t like to give up their own authority to choose, no matter how few of them pay close attention to this and other down-ballot races.

It’s a tough sell, but Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, says he's going to try it . I wish him well, because it’s hard to see the benefit of the way we do things now.

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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.