Oklahoma Legislature may eliminate state Board of Education as it exists today

Oklahoma lawmakers are considering making significant changes to the governor-appointed committee tasked with overseeing the Education Department, one of the state's largest agencies.
BY MEGAN ROLLAND mrolland@opubco.com Published: March 5, 2011
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Oklahoma would be in a class by itself if lawmakers approve a plan to remove the six appointed members of the state Education Board and replace them with statewide officials.

Senate Bill 435 would eliminate the appointed positions and replace them with the governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

Every state in the nation but two — Minnesota and Wisconsin — have governing boards that oversee their education departments and often regulate local school districts.

And while some boards are elected, some appointed and others a combination of the two, none has statewide elected officials holding the seats.

“I've seen lots of changes in governance and seen almost every system imaginable,” said Brenda Wilburn, who has been with the National Association of State Boards of Education for 27 years.

She said Florida used to have state officials sit on the board of education rather than the current system where the governor appoints members.

“One of the challenges they faced was the fact that the members serving on the board — the state attorney general, the insurance commissioner, other members of the Cabinet — really they were not people that had time and some not the inclination to really get involved with education at the level it needs,” Wilburn said.

The proposal passed in the Senate along party lines and now will be considered by the House.

Meanwhile, a separate bill passed in the House that aims to reduce the state Education Board's authority.

Both bills were introduced following a power struggle between the six board members appointed by former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, and the newly elected state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, a Republican.

Barresi said she expected opposition from the board when she took office in January and is supportive of the changes proposed by lawmakers.

The board in its first meeting refused to hire her chief of staff, head of communications and finance director, asserted its authority to “assign duties” to the superintendent and questioned whether she was mandated by statute to head the board.

“I knew there would be a tremendous amount of push-back,” Barresi said. “I knew this would be a battle. I was ready for it, and I am focused absolutely on the children and making sure that we fundamentally reform education.”

Authority shift

House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, responded to the incident with a bill that would take away the board's authority over the state Education Department and its ability to assign duties to the superintendent, to demand public presentations from department employees, and to create the department's budget for submission to the governor.