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Politics seep into school leaders role

Accountability standards, charter school funding sometimes causing controversy

The role of the chief state school officer is becoming increasingly political, with the rise of tough accountability standards and mounting tension over the funding of charter schools.

These pressures were on display in August, when Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett resigned amid accusations that, while serving as Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction last year, he changed the grading formula to benefit charter schools, including one backed by a prominent Republican donor.

Top K12 education officials’ duties vary from state to state, but traditionally these officials have been responsible mainly for regulating federal and state education policy. Over the past 15 years, the role has changed to include developing accountability programs and improving low-performing schools, says Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of advocacy, policy and communications at the School Superintendents Association.

“No Child Left Behind made every state superintendent in charge of keeping score of whether kids are learning enough, and how to know if they are,” Hunter says. “They all had to produce and oversee a reliable test. If there were anomalies, they had to act.”

Each state has a different system for electing or appointing the chief state schools officer. Twenty-three of these officers are appointed by the state board of education; 17 are appointed by the governor; 11 are elected on partisan or nonpartisan ballots; and two are appointed by state boards and approved by the governor, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.

The accountability measures of NCLB, combined with a growing pressure for American students to compete globally, have greatly increased expectations for state school leaders like Bennett, a high-profile education reform advocate. In Indiana, Bennett created the nation’s largest voucher program and implemented the A-F grading system for schools, which advocates say make performance assessments transparent and easily understandable to the public.

Bennett is a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of state education leaders affiliated with two advocacy groups run by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education supports the A-F grading system, voucher programs, and charter school growth. Bush himself called the accusations against Bennett false in a Miami Herald editorial, and stated his support for Bennett’s reform efforts.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers in Indiana has called for the state to suspend the grading system. The Florida advocacy group Fund Education Now has called for the same in their state.

A chief state school officer who wants reform must bring together unions and groups similar to those backed by Bush. They also must get support from national and state school boards, legislators, and new players, such as education foundations and wealthy donors with financial interests in schools, says Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, a national independent public schools advocacy group.

“It’s a big tempest right now—for a lot of these chiefs, there is pressure to push through a reform effort in a timely fashion,” Ferguson says. “These people are really in the hot seat.”

Though the public expects school leaders to show quick improvements, major education reforms can take years to make an impact, especially considering the diversity of American students, Ferguson says.

“School leaders need to be honest about what they can do, and how fast they can do it,” she says. “People’s expectations about education are always going to be misguided about how quickly change happens.”