Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, wants to abolish the Virginia Board of Education.
Her bill, HJR 474, would transfer the board’s responsibilities to the superintendent of public instruction, who is appointed by the governor. This would give the governor unfettered authority over state education policy because right now every incoming governor deals with a board of education appointed by his predecessor. With staggered terms, it may be well into a governor’s term, perhaps even toward the end, before a governor can fill the board with his (or someday her) own people.
This strikes me as the classic “brochure bill” – a bill designed to look good on a campaign flyer even if it’s not expected to pass.
March hasn’t elaborated on her bill but I’m guessing, if she’s serious about it, that the immediate goal is to give more power to a Republican governor who has made schools one of his signature issues. If so, then this move is short-sighted because what happens if there’s a Democratic governor, as there surely will be at some point? Conservatives might like it now if Gov. Glenn Youngkin had more sway over school policy but they surely wouldn’t want a Democratic governor to be able to do as he or she pleases. The current setup acts as a kind of check and balance against the chief executive, perhaps frustrating for Republicans now but potentially frustrating for some future Democratic governor.
If conservatives want more control over state schools, I’m surprised they haven’t gone a different route and pushed for electing either the superintendent of public instruction and/or the state board of education. Either or both of those options might serve as a hedge against a future Democratic administration.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting either of those is necessarily good policy. I’m merely pointing out the politics, and how, in the great laboratory of democracy that is our federal system, some other states structure their school systems quite differently.
Six states elect their entire state board of education, and most of those are conservative states: Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Texas and Utah. Three others – Louisiana, Ohio and Nevada – have state boards that consist of some elected members and some appointed members. In Louisiana and Ohio, elected members comprise a majority of the board; in Nevada, they don’t. All told, that’s nine states that elect state board of education members and eight where those elected officials comprise a majority of the board.
Six of those nine are states that usually go Republican. I don’t know if that makes elected state boards of education a conservative idea – there are lots of other conservative states with appointed state boards. But Alabama voters, who are definitely conservative, certainly like the idea of an elected state board. When there was a proposed constitutional amendment in 2020 to make their state board of education an appointed one, 75% of Alabama voters said no. That’s a higher percentage than Donald Trump got that year (he got 62%).
In Virginia, the idea of electing local school boards was once a liberal concept. Now, it seems either universal or perhaps even a conservative idea. Republicans won control of the Lynchburg City Council in last November’s election, and one of their main platform planks was pushing for an elected school board in the Hill City. Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, has introduced legislation in the General Assembly that would make it easier for localities to switch to elected school boards. Now, 10% of a locality’s registered voters must petition for the move before a referendum can be held; Walker’s bill would enable a city council or board of supervisors to order such a vote.
So why haven’t conservatives across Virginia pushed for an elected state board of education? I suspect the idea simply hasn’t crossed their minds.
Of course, the trick would be how such a board is put together. If all the members were elected statewide, particularly at the same time the governor is elected, then there’s the possibility of a statewide sweep. That might be a good thing if you’re a member of the winning party, not so good if you’re not.
If such board members were elected on a district basis, then we’d have the joy (?) of redrawing those lines every 10 years the same way we redraw legislative lines. The Virginia Board of Education has nine members. For the sake of argument, let’s bump that up to 11 (yes, that would be expanding the size of government, something conservatives don’t usually like) so the number of education seats could match our number of congressional districts. If that were the configuration now, and board of education members came from the same party as our representatives, then we’d presently have six Democrats and five Republicans – so maybe that’s not an argument conservatives would want to use. For what it’s worth, some states – Colorado and Nevada – do elect their state board members by congressional districts.
Given the way Virginia’s voters are distributed, and the way our congressional districts are drawn, there are four congressional districts (the 1st in eastern Virginia, the 5th in Southside, the 6th from Roanoke up through the Shenandoah Valley and the 9th in Southwest Virginia) that are pretty well assured of electing Republicans. And there are at least four, maybe five districts (depending on how you count the 10th District in Northern Virginia) that are pretty well assured of electing Democrats. That leaves only two swing districts – the 2nd in Hampton Roads that just elected Republican Jen Kiggans, and the 7th in the Fredericksburg area that just reelected Democrat Abigail Spanberger. The point being: If we elected a state board of education, and elected those members on a district basis, there’d almost always be some Democratic members and some Republican members. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing may depend on your ideology and how you feel about divided government. Considering that four of the past six governors have been Democrats, you’d think Republicans might like at least some assurance they’d have a voice in education policy, even a minority one.
Meanwhile, 12 states elect their state superintendent of schools (what we call the superintendent of public instruction): Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Most of those are conservative states – only California and Washington would qualify as regularly voting Democratic – but the most common theme there might be that most are also Western states, and Western states have historically been the most open to electoral innovation. (Western states were the first to grant women the right to vote and the first to implement voting by mail.)
Curiously, this list doesn’t overlap with the list of states that elect their board of education. If you add them together, that means 22 states elect their top education leaders in some way. Virginia used to be among them. Virginia once elected its superintendent of public instruction – along with the auditor of public accounts, the secretary of the commonwealth and the state treasurer. All that changed in 1928 when Virginia – at the behest of then-Gov. Harry Byrd Sr. – approved a constitutional amendment to reduce the number of statewide officials it elected. Ostensibly, this was a move to make state government more efficient. It also had the effect of strengthening the governor, who now got to appoint those officials. Republicans then were the primary opponents to what became known as the Byrd Machine. If March’s proposal were to pass, then we’d have the irony of another Republican, nearly a century later, helping to accelerate the centralization of executive power that Byrd set in motion.