Stitt rekindles off-and-on debate about state post
With his stated desire to see the state superintendent of public instruction job become appointed instead of elected, Gov. Kevin Stitt has renewed a debate that’s been held on and off for years in Oklahoma and generally gone nowhere.
In a recent interview with The Oklahoman, Stitt said he is frustrated by the governor’s limited ability to affect education policy, and feels the public expects the governor to be able to do more in this area. “That’s just common sense,” Stitt said.
Yet making this change would require altering the state constitution. Recent efforts by the Legislature to place the proposal on the ballot have been unsuccessful.
In 2013, state Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, ran a bill that would have let the people vote on whether the governor should appoint the state superintendent, labor commissioner and insurance commissioner. The bill didn’t survive, although among those who testified in favor was then-Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, who agreed the governor should have the leeway to appoint heads of state agencies.
Two years earlier, a similar effort to make those three jobs appointive had gone nowhere.
Both times, the Legislature was controlled by Republicans as is the case today. But this hasn’t been a strictly partisan pursuit. In 2010, after running unsuccessfully for the position, a former Democratic state senator filed a bill to make the superintendent’s position appointive.
And in 2004, then-Democratic state Rep. Dan Boren teamed with a Republican House colleague to try to make the insurance and labor jobs appointive — it failed. A poll commissioned a few months earlier had shown Oklahomans preferred, by healthy margins, that those jobs remain elective.
Both those posts were made elective offices by the state’s founders. In 1975, voters made labor commissioner an appointed position, only to reverse course in 1988 and make it elective again. All three remain so today.
According to the website Ballotpedia, Oklahoma is one of just 13 states where the state schools superintendent is elected. In this region, Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri all fill the job via appointment.
Of the 37 states where the superintendent is appointed, the power to do so belongs with the state Board of Education in 18, with the governor in 17, and with the state regents in two. Stitt hasn’t specified if he would want the governor to make the appointment or leave it to the state Board of Education, which is made up mostly of gubernatorial appointees.
Critics of Stitt’s suggestion worry that such a change would remove clout from voters. But if this change were to happen, it would only be because voters themselves decided they wanted it, since they have final say on constitutional amendments.
The Legislature sending this proposal to voters is itself a long shot. But in resurrecting the idea, Stitt has provided some interesting fodder in advance of the 2020 session.