A move is underway in the Legislature to once again elect the state superintendent of education. It’s a bad idea for a number of reasons. Those who support the effort by Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Houma, apparently aren’t aware of why the job became appointive in the first place.
The best reason was explained when Harrison’s legislation was heard by the House Education Committee. Having an elected superintendent and an elected state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education creates confusion about who is the real boss. Under the current system that has been in place since 1988, the board selects the superintendent with a two-thirds vote.
The American Press in a 1985 editorial explained why electing the superintendent doesn’t work well.
“The last five persons to hold that office have been politicians first and educators second,” the newspaper said. “That is not to say they haven’t been successful in some respects, but they have not had the luxury of directing our large educational bureaucracy with a free hand.”
Tom Clausen, the elected superintendent from 1984 to 1988, is the best example of what happens when education has two bosses. He created numerous conflicts with BESE throughout his term. He got off to a bad start when he awarded jobs that didn’t exist before to his political supporters.
The Associated Press in January of 1985 said, “Clausen has been at odds with BESE since he took office last March.”
The board “widened its rift” with Clausen, “voting to ask for an investigation of some of his spending and stripping him of control of Louisiana’s 52 trade schools,” the AP said.
The state constitution (Art. IV, S20) provides for the appointment of the superintendent of education. The constant conflicts between Clausen and BESE resulted in a bill being offered during the 1985 legislative session to make the job appointive.
Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, who was beginning his unprecedented third term, became the champion of the effort to appoint the superintendent. As you would expect, Clausen was furious and fought the proposal with everything at his disposal.
State Rep. Alphonse Jackson, D-Shreveport and one of 14 black state representatives, charged in April of 1985 that employees of the state Department of Education were using a racist smear campaign to derail the appointment move. Jackson said Clausen and his lobbyists were circulating untrue rumors that Jackson would become the first appointed superintendent.
In May of 1985, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Bryan Bush said he would look into reports that six employees of the Department of Education had been drawing regular paychecks without ever having shown up for work. A top aide to Clausen acknowledged later that some of the appointees weren’t doing the jobs they were being paid to do.
Meanwhile, Edwards came up one vote short of the 26 he needed for a two-thirds vote on the bill in the Senate. After some arm twisting of legislators, Edwards got a 27-9 vote to make the education post appointive. The House later voted 71-31 to support the legislation.
Edwards took steps in June to strip powers and authority from Clausen. He said elected superintendents spend too much time worrying about re-election and paying back political contributors.
One of the governor’s lieutenants said, “There is more than one way to skin a cat. If he (Clausen) wants to play, well he better hone up on hardball because the governor is determined – and this is hardball.”
The state’s education picture at that time was bleak. Only 57.2 percent of Louisiana’s 1979 freshman class stayed in school to graduate in 1983. The state was on the bottom of national education rankings.
Things got worse for Clausen. BESE voted to subpoena him and nine subordinates to explain how people were hired to run state schools for the handicapped. It was reported that one man hired to help find jobs for handicapped students was actually serving as Clausen’s chauffeur.
The Civil Service Commission in July of 1985 charged Clausen and two of his aides with conspiring to commit fraud and contempt of the commission. A Lecompte businessman, a former supporter of Clausen’s, claimed in October he was offered the state’s textbook depository contract if he would give Clausen $100,000 in cash every year he was superintendent.
Clausen and three others in his department were indicted by a parish grand jury for payroll fraud. Clausen and a former aide went to trial, but were acquitted in 1987. Other charges against them were dropped.
Court challenges against the law making the education post appointive were unsuccessful, and Wilmer “Bill” Cody was appointed to the job in April of 1988.
Two things have motivated the current effort to elect the superintendent – Common Core, the controversial curriculum program, and the intense dislike by some of John White, the superintendent of education.
Neither is reason enough to change an appointive system that works. Besides, White is expected to leave the office when Gov. Bobby Jindal’s term ends in January of 2016.
Local school boards appoint their superintendents, and that system works well. The late Cecil Picard and most of the others
who were appointed state superintendent have been a credit to the process.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or email@example.com.