In October, Vermont Education Commissioner Ray McNulty unveiled an early education initiative with eight components ranging from establishing a uniform kindergarten entrance date to expanding the state's role in pre-kindergarten programs.
The early education programs proposed by the commissioner were presented smack in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign. At first blush, that would seem odd because one would assume that the next governor would have his own ideas on education issues and would want to consult with his education commissioner on how to promote and implement those ideas.
There's the problem -- the governor has little say over the commissioner of education. While the governor appoints other important department heads, such as the leaders of the transportation, finance and management and commerce agencies, he just gets to say nay or yea to the commissioner of education's appointment by the state Board of Education.
Surely the state board is elected and thus accountable to the people? No. The state board is made up of 10 people appointed by the governor to six-year terms. Because Howard Dean has been governor for so long, he has appointed every single current member. While some vacancies will come up during the new governor's term, it would take a long time for a new governor to completely fill the board with like-minded individuals.
Only a dozen other states in the country have such a low accountability system for their education CEO. Eleven states have some indirect accountability with the education CEO appointed by a high-profile elected official -- such as a governor -- who can then be held responsible for his or her choice. And 27 states have systems where some state board members are elected and/or the education CEO is elected.
Education policy, of course, can be affected in ways outside of the Department of Education. For example, the governor can propose and lobby for education legislation. His ability to influence education policy, though, is limited if the commissioner and he don't see eye to eye.
To some extent, this is already happening. While paying lip service to school choice policies, the Vermont Department of Education finds choice so distasteful that they sought guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on delaying the small choice component contained in the new federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The governor-elect, Jim Douglas, however, campaigned on public school choice. Will he be able to move this policy forward when the Department of Education isn't in agreement with him and can use its formidable resources to oppose him?
In its current form, the Vermont Department of Education operates on a very low-accountability scale. It doesn't answer to the governor. It doesn't answer to the people. The commissioner is free to oppose or support policies completely at odds with those espoused by other elected officials, including the governor, and suffer few consequences.
In other words, if people don't like the education policies of the governor, they can vote him out of office. If people don't like the policies of the Department of Education, they're stuck.
Education is a one billion dollar industry in Vermont. It is one of the largest expenditures the state makes. Yet the administrators who set education policy and implement education laws by making regulations and dealing with schools are far removed from the people in Vermont. They are not elected, and the head of the education industry is not even appointed by a high-profile elected official.
This needs to change.