Bill filed to popularly elect State Board of Education | Arkansas Blog

Bill filed to popularly elect State Board of Education


DEMOCRACY NOW: Rep. Justin Harris wants State Board of Education to be elected.
  • DEMOCRACY NOW: Rep. Justin Harris wants State Board of Education to be elected.
Reps. Justin Harris and Jim Dotson, two deeply conservative legislators from Northwest Arkansas, filed a bill last week to change eight of the nine seats on the powerful State Board of Education from appointed to elected positions.

Two members each would be elected from Arkansas's four congressional districts, beginning in 2016; the governor would retain appointment of the ninth member.

The bill was sent to the House committee on State Agencies, rather than the Education Committee. It's on the committee's agenda for tomorrow. Perhaps it has little chance of passing — with two seats on the state board opening up this year, would Gov. Asa Hutchinson relinquish control over those influential appointments? But in light of the state board's recent controversial takeover of the Little Rock School District (LRSD), the proposal bears mention.

In principle, in my opinion, this is a value neutral idea: As with judgeships, there are pros and cons to insulating decision makers such as state board members from the tempestuous will of the public (which is also known as "democracy"). Whether one supports it or not, the decision to take over the LRSD was decidedly undemocratic, and some in Little Rock might now see the appeal of a popularly elected state board. 

But in practice, having Arkansas voters directly select the people who determine education policy could be a dangerous change. On education matters, Harris is best known for pushing the envelope on religion in public schools, and it seems likely he believes a popularly elected state board would result in members more amenable to that agenda. He's probably right. And as for Little Rock — one only has to look at last November's election results to see the gap in political philosophy between Pulaski County and even the rest of the 2nd Congressional District. Would a popularly elected State Board of Education have voted to keep LRSD under local control? Don't count on it.

Some states elect their state education boards, and some even elect their Education Commissioner (or "state superintendent" or "chief school officer" — different titles, same roles). Here's a chart from the National Association of State Boards of Education that shows different public school governance models used by the 50 states. (Note that in Arkansas, according to this chart, the state board is the entity directly responsible for appointing the Ed Commissioner. That power is traditionally left up to the governor ... but tradition isn't the same as statute.)

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