In the state of Oklahoma in the USA, where I live, as voters we elect our state’s top official for public education. This position is officially known as the “Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction,” but more commonly called the “Oklahoma State School Superintendent.” When our family moved to Oklahoma in 2006, I was surprised to learn this was an elected position. I think as a state we’re fairly unique in the United States in still having an elected state education commissioner / superintendent. In both Texas and Kansas, our neighboring states to the south and the north, the state governors appoint a “Commissioner of Education.” In Texas that’s currently Robert Scott, and in Kansas it’s Alexa Posny. It is interesting to note (according to the current English WikiPedia article for “Kansas State Board of Education” that:

The Kansas State Board of Education was created to replace the position of Kansas State Superintendent of Public Instruction effective January 14, 1969, pursuant to an amendment to the Kansas Constitution adopted November 8, 1966.

I’d like to know how many other states still elect their state’s highest education official, and if other states in addition to Kansas dispensed with this as an elected position in the mid to late 1960s?

One result of our constitutional and electoral situation in Oklahoma regarding education officials is that our State School Superintendent has a LOT of power and influence. I spoke with someone recently who strongly believed in many ways, the Oklahoma State School Superintendent has more power than our governor. When an elected official has served in the same public office for many years, generally that person accrues ever more power as a result of the networking and ties which they establish with others. Term limits have been imposed on elected officials in some states, including Oklahoma, but those term limits in our state do not affect the office of the State School Superintendent.

Our current Oklahoma State School Superintendent is Sandy Garrett. For the past 21 years, Sandy has served a top education official in our state. In 1988, she was appointed as the Oklahoma “Cabinet Secretary of Education” by then Governor of Oklahoma Henry Bellmon, and in 1990 was elected as the “Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction.” She is:

…the only woman in Oklahoma history elected to the constitutional office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction… [and] the only Oklahoma woman elected to a statewide office for a fifth consecutive term.

Has the same individual governed public schools for over two decades in any other state in our nation, besides Oklahoma? I think Oklahoma is very unique in this regard.

Given this situation, you can probably imagine Sandy Garrett’s announcement in August 2009 that she would NOT seek a sixth term as State School Superintendent caused quite a stir in Oklahoma. For the first time since 1994, an incumbent will NOT be running for Oklahoma State School Superintendent. The race for this elected office is sure to be interesting, and given the far-reaching influence of this position on educational policy in our state, it’s certainly a topic I’ll continue to follow closely.

Given my strong interest in education, learning, educational transformation, educational technology, creativity, and educational leadership, I was very surprised to read that our Oklahoma Governor (Brad Henry) has named the current mayor of Tulsa (Kathy Taylor) to be our state’s “education czar” when she leaves office later this year. Governor Henry made this announcement this week.

Wait a minute – a “state education czar?” I thought as citizens of Oklahoma, we elect our highest education official, following the provisions of our state Constitution? Oh — I see — this is a new, temporary position, created by the governor because education is such an important political topic? Or is there more here than meets the eye?

Michael Mcnutt sheds more light on these questions in his article for NewsOK, “Gov. Henry appoints Tulsa mayor as education adviser, “ writing:

Henry, who will leave office in January 2011 after serving two terms, selected Taylor to fill a new position, called the governor’s chief of education strategy and innovation. He has never had an education secretary; he instead relied on advice from his wife, Kim, a former teacher. The post will be a full-time position, but Taylor said she will be volunteering her time and will not accept a state salary. She has not accepted a salary as Tulsa’s mayor, either.

There are multiple elements to this story which sound strange. As I’ll repeat again later in this post, I am not writing this post as a personal attack on anyone. As an educational blogger and educational change agent, however, I feel obligated to highlight several anomalies with this article and announcement which seem fishy.

This may be insignificant, but there’s an obvious inconsistency with this article‘s online publication date. As of this evening, the article shows a publication date of October 1st, but a modification date of September 30th. Aren’t articles usually published FIRST before they are modified? Apparently some changes have been made to this article since it was first released online, or else NewsOK’s time/date stamping system on their content management system is messed up. I suspect the former.

Modification date and publication date don't match

The second thing which seems quite strange in this article is the statement, “He [Governor Henry] has never had an education secretary; he instead relied on advice from his wife, Kim, a former teacher.” Surely this is not a paraphrase from the Governor himself? Michael Mcnutt did not write that as a quotation, but the implication is that Governor Henry selected Taylor for this role because “Oklahoma does not have a secretary of education.” According to the current English WikiPedia article for “Oklahoma State Department of Education,” we DO have a “Secretary of Education” in Oklahoma:

The Department [the Oklahoma State Department of Education] is led by the Secretary of Education, the Chair of the State Board of Education, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Under Governor Brad Henry, Sandy Garrett serve [sic] concurrently as [sic] all three offices.

Everyone in our state involved with state politics and education knows that Sandy Garrett is our chief education officer. Apparently, unless the SDE’s WikiPedia article is wrong and in need of revision (certainly a possibility) she even “officially” has the title of “Secretary of Education.” Is Michael Mcnutt accurately quoting our governor? Why is Sandy Garrett not mentioned in this article, which presents a view that we don’t have top state level leadership in education? I don’t know that answer, but I’m sure it is quite political.

Here’s a third thing strange about this article and announcement. Mcnutt writes:

The post [newly appointed Oklahoma education czar] will be a full-time position, but Taylor said she will be volunteering her time and will not accept a state salary. She has not accepted a salary as Tulsa’s mayor, either.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be so independently wealthy that you could dedicate your full attention to serving the political needs of your city, and then focus your attention on the educational needs of your state? LET ME BE CLEAR: I am NOT writing this post as a personal attack on anyone, including Kathy Taylor. I have heard Kathy present at a public forum once (in the fall of 2008) and beyond that presentation, do not know a great deal about her. I sincerely DO think it would be great to be so financially well-off that volunteering to serve in elected and appointed positions full-time (apparently) would be viable. I guess that should give me incentive to keep my entrepreneurial ideas cooking for the future…..

That is not the end of the “strange things” about this article and announcement, however. In the last paragraph, Michael Mcnutt writes:

“Education is my very top priority,” Henry said. “We are in a competitive position, and we can compete nationally with any other state in the country. … It’s important that we have somebody who can focus like a laser on those efforts.” Henry, a Democrat, said he is not creating a new Cabinet position, but that Taylor would sit in on Cabinet meetings and offer advice. Because it’s not a Cabinet position, her appointment does not need confirmation from the Republican-controlled Senate.

Governor Henry is absolutely correct that we need to focus with both action AND words on improving educational opportunities for the people of Oklahoma. He is interestingly NOT mentioning in this quotation, however, that we DO have someone who has been focused on the issue of education for the past twenty years: Sandy Garrett. So why would our governor, when he obviously knows we have a top education official in office who has been wielding considerable power and influence on education policy in our state for over two decades, create a newly appointed position of “Chief of Education Strategy and Innovation” as a cabinet-level advisory position, but not an “official cabinet position” which would need legislative approval?

Of course, I don’t know the answer for certain. I could guess, but perhaps I’d be better advised to simply point out the anomalies or “strange things” in this article and announcement and let you reach your own conclusions. I’m going to leave a comment for Michael Mcnutt on the original NewsOK article and reference this post, so perhaps we’ll get some clarification from him on these issues.

One thing is certain: 2010 will be an interesting year for Oklahoma educational politics.

Oklahoma State Capitol

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6 Responses to 2010 will be an interesting year for Oklahoma educational politics

  1. Wesley Fryer says:

    This is the comment I posted to the original article about Governor Henry’s announcement this week:


    I’ve noticed several anomalies in this article and have written a post I’d love to have you comment on in response:

    1. Why is the modification date of this article (30 Sept) before the publication date (1 Oct)? What modifications to the original were made, and why is the time/date stamp for these out of order?

    2. Doesn’t Sandy Garrett hold three official titles in Oklahoma with reference to the state school board: “Secretary of Education, the Chair of the State Board of Education, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction?” Are you quoting Governor Henry saying we don’t have a secretary of education in Oklahoma, inserting that as your own opinion, or is there another reason for that statement in the article?

    3. Why is Taylor not accepting a salary for this full-time position? Is she funded through her own savings, or are their other organizations / entities who are planning to fund her income for the year she serves in this role? I encourage you to investigate and uncover those answers as part of your coverage of this issue / announcement for the people of Oklahoma.

    4. Why do we need a “Chief of Education Strategy and Innovation” as a cabinet-level advisory position now in Oklahoma, when we have a State Superintendent for Education and a Chancellor for Higher Education? What is the political agenda behind this announcement? I don’t know what that is, but again would encourage you to uncover it as you continue to report on this issue and announcement.

    Thanks very much for writing about this topic. Education is very important to me as an Oklahoman and I hope all our leaders (elected, appointed, and others) will work hard together to significantly improve educational opportunities within our state in the months ahead.

    Wesley Fryer
    Edmond, OK

  2. Carla says:

    Wes, for the record, Indiana still elects a Superintendent of Public Instruction. The current Superintendent is Dr. Tony Bennett. Prior to his term beginning in 2009, Dr. Suellen Reed held the post for 16 years.

  3. Wesley Fryer says:

    Thanks Carla, interesting. Was Dr. Suellen Reed defeated in the last election by Dr. Tony Bennett or did he retire / not run again?

  4. Carla says:

    Wes, Dr. Reed decided not to run again.

  5. Carla says:

    I just realized that my statement is poorly worded. May I revise?

    The current Superintendent is Dr. Tony Bennett. Prior to Dr. Bennett, Dr. Suellen Reed held the post for 16 years. She stepped down in 2009.

  6. carol says:

    The State of Wisconsin elects a State Superintendent of Education. They do not run as members of a political party. I think the term is for four years. Our current Superintendent took office in July, Tony Evers who has a PhD in Education and served in various K-12 positions as well as in the Department of Public Instruction before he ran for Superintendent. The previous Superintendent decided not to run for reelection and she served at least 2 terms.

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