Want to Improve Public Education? Put the Governor at the Top of the Executive Branch.

Jan 15, 2020 | Blog | 0 comments

Whatever your gripe about the state of public education in Oklahoma, don’t tell it to Kevin Stitt. He can do very little about it. That’s not because he doesn’t want to or because he doesn’t have good ideas about how to improve our schools. It’s because our governor lacks the most basic authority needed to shape state education policy: the power to oversee and direct the State Department of Education.

Ditto for a host of other executive branch functions, including law enforcement (Attorney General), regulation of the state’s largest industry (Corporation Commission), scrutiny of agency expenditures (Auditor), management of the public purse (Treasurer), oversight of insurance (Insurance Commissioner) and regulation of labor and employment issues (Labor Commissioner). Each of these executive branch agencies are siloed under separate elected officials who do not answer to the Governor.

Most organization charts display a neat hierarchy of accountable offices forming a chain of command. Our state org chart more closely resembles the dot-connecting of a ranting conspiracy theorist.

Don’t tell it to your legislator, either. The Oklahoma Legislature can, and does, pass bill after bill attempting to set education policy for the state. But what happens after those laws are enacted? All too often they float into the ether, ignored by the education bureaucracy as they march forward with their own priorities.

Oklahoma has a dysfunctional government. I don’t mean that we have gridlock, or that we have reprobates in important public positions, or that our government doesn’t do things. I mean that our state government—particularly our executive branch—is not designed to function coherently.

Constitutional law professor Andy Spiropoulos has waxed eloquently about Oklahoma’s feeble executive branch for years, quoting Alexander Hamilton about the need for “energy” in the executive, which is greatly undermined by Oklahoma’s division of executive branch responsibilities. He has made a persuasive case for a unitary executive, and apparently twenty years of banging his head against the wall has finally begun to bear fruit. Last year the Legislature granted the Governor the power to hire and fire the leaders of the largest state agencies, and just this week the Governor called for the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction to become an appointed position under the Governor’s authority. This is long overdue.

To illustrate the problem, consider just one example. 1889 Institute has pointed out that many Oklahoma public schools cling to a discredited method of teaching reading despite more than enough information and resources available to fix the problem. In a functioning government, the Governor would learn of this inexcusable failure and pick up the phone to his employee who runs the State Department of Education to order an immediate change. The agency head would get to work developing and implementing a plan to correct the situation, and if she didn’t, she would need to start updating her resume.

In Oklahoma, the Governor can call the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (or more likely, give a quote to a newspaper reporter and hope she sees it the next day), and politely ask her to stop the schools under her administration from allowing another generation of students to fall behind. And the Superintendent can tell him to kick rocks.

In a functional government, a Governor failing to deal with such a serious, yet easily solvable problem would be held to account by the Legislature and the public. It would go something like this: when the Governor submitted his proposed budget, the Legislature would hold hearings for each of the agencies. They would call in agency heads (in our hypothetical government, the Governor’s cabinet members), put them under oath, and start grilling them about the money they are asking the people of the state to fork over. If the legislative committee was worth its salt, it would do some kind of analysis of past performance of the agency and inquire as to future plans. Policy experts might testify, the public would have an opportunity to weigh in, and legislators could have confidence that they had all the information they needed to evaluate the performance and needs of the executive branch agencies they are funding. They could set policy in the form of laws, and trust that these policies would be implemented. If they are not, there would be one person to hold accountable.

Ultimately, what I am describing is coherence in policymaking. A Governor, as the unitary head of the executive branch of government, would create a vision, set priorities, and execute. The agencies under his direction would reflect his administration’s priorities, not work at cross-purposes, competing with one another to the point that they hire their own lobbyists. The Legislature would set policy and have some confidence that the executive branch will actually execute those policies. And the people would hold all of these officials accountable on election day.

This is the American System. Our state founding fathers departed from it when they drew up our Prairie Populist state constitution, and the resulting ineffective state government has been around for so long that it has inculcated a culture that accepts poor performance as “just the way things are”. Despite this depressing history, we are now inching, ever slowly, in the right direction.

The Governor wants a constitutional amendment to give him the ability to implement state education policy set by the Legislature. Will the Legislature recognize that it enhances its own power by strengthening the Governor’s?

Struggling readers in our public schools await its answer.

Benjamin Lepak is Legal Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at blepak@1889institute.org.