If Idaho’s lawmakers are so intent on demolishing the state superintendent of public instruction, let them do so openly.
That’s what their predecessors tried four times in the 1960s.
They wanted the superintendent to serve as a State Board of Education appointee.
Legislators had their reasons. Authority over Idaho education was scattered. For years, the divide between the state board’s control over policy and the superintendent’s mastery over administration was never entirely clear.
As an elected office, the state superintendent might attract someone more interested in climbing the political ladder than in promoting quality schools.
Making the change required passage of an amendment to Idaho’s constitution. What followed was a series of public hearings and debates in the germane House and Senate education committees. Three times — 1961, 1963 and 1965 — the measure fell short of winning the required two-thirds majority in each chamber.
Then in 1967, the measure cleared the two-thirds threshold, placing it before the voters in the following election in 1968.
Among those who supported the idea was the occupant of the office at the time, D.F. Engelking.
“The real concern of the superintendent is the education and I think you ought to have the least amount of political interference,” Engelking told the Associated Press.
That argument did not sway the voters, however.
They rejected the amendment by a 45-to-55 percent margin. Only five counties voted yes. Among them was Latah County.
At least it was the right way to conduct business — out in the open with the voters getting the final say.
Here’s the wrong way to do it:
Sneak a bill through the Legislature’s budget committee — which unlike the House and Senate education panels holds no public hearings and lacks expertise in education matters — to strip from the superintendent’s office 18 out of 21 technology staffers as well as the $2.7 million that covers those employees’ payroll.
Transfer those employees to the State Board of Education.
Because technology is central to everything her office does — whether it’s reviewing enrollment data collected across the state, monitoring school transportation or even preparing the next budget recommendation — Superintendent Sherri Ybarra finds herself answering to a pair of bureaucracies.
First, there’s the State Board of Education, whose members answer to the governor.
And there’s Executive Director Matt Freeman, who answers to the governor’s appointees on the State Board.
Ybarra’s protest fell on deaf ears at the Idaho Supreme Court, which last month voted 5-0 to uphold the legislative raid on her budget and autonomy.
All of which sets the stage for more diminution of the office.
Will some future Legislature argue, for instance, that the unit responsible for establishing professional standards for teachers belongs with the State Board?
Suppose lawmakers decide to place the transportation program with the State Board in order to streamline cooperation with charter schools, whose administrators already answer to the State Board’s charter school commission.
If that doesn’t happen on Ybarra’s watch, it certainly becomes more likely if a Democrat is elected as her successor. Much the same thing happened to the late Marilyn Howard earlier in this century. Republicans on the State Board, led by former GOP Chairman Blake Hall, took from the State Department of Education administration over standardized testing under the No Child Left Behind Act.
So why not draft a new version of the 1968 amendment?
Put it before the education committees.
Bring in the public, the parents and the teachers to testify.
Then put a constitutional amendment eliminating the office on the ballot.
After enduring the shortfalls of Ybarra and two of her predecessors — Anne Fox and Tom Luna — during the past three decades, voters may agree the schools are better off being led by a professional appointee who answers to the State Board or even the governor’s office than an elected politician.
If voters once again say no, lawmakers — and the state superintendent — would know where they stand.
At least the process would be more honest. — M.T.