House Hearing On Bill To Elect State Board of Education Members
Monday night, the House Government Oversight and Accountability Committee heard two bills that dealt with changing the Missouri Constitution to make State Board of Education members be elected from the eight congressional districts. The only difference in the bills was the process by which the current board would be transitioned to the newly elected board.
Representative Bryan Spencer introduced HJR66 which changes the state constitution from having the governor appoint the 8 member board to having those members elected by the congressional district. HJR66 would have the transition occur over an eight year period rolling through the districts. A significant fiscal note was attached to his bill since it would require the state to hold statewide elections every year instead of every two years.
Representative Dean Dohrman introduced HJR74 which makes the same conversion from appointment to election as HJR66, but places four districts on statewide ballot every two years avoiding the fiscal note. It was noted at the hearing that there was a third bill filed (by Rep. Montecillo) that also sought changes to the state board of education and that all three representatives had been working independently when drafting their legislation, demonstrating that there is wide bi-partisan concern about the SBE and interest in addressing problems that have arisen.
Dr. Mary Byrne presented testimony in favor of the bill citing a report from NASBE which documents that 11 other states also elect their SBE. More to the point of why such a change was needed, Dr. Byrne read from a St. Louis NPR report on a recent SBE meeting to consider plans to help struggling school districts. At that meeting, several sitting state board of education members voiced a disturbing view of local control. Mike Jones, Vice President of the Board, said, “The tradition of education as a local responsibility is no longer totally true… We are managing that process and are a player in that process.”
Board member John Martin said, “When governance won’t cooperate, there needs to be a hammer big enough to require cooperation.”
I provided testimony in support of the bill and addressing some of the concerns of the committee expressed in previous Q&A. Representative Pierson believed that such elections would preclude an African American from ever serving on the Board due to the financial challenge of running a congressional district race. I indicated that my research in other states that elect their members showed that such races did not necessarily cost more than a house district race. Spencer had already pointed out that we had several African Americans legislators in the House.
The term limits in HJR74 (4 year terms, max two terms) would prevent Representative Mitten’s concern of having career members of the board. We currently have a 23 year member of the board because we have no term limits.
Mittens also suggested that perhaps the concerns could be addressed in statute, redefining the Board’s function. However, the board currently is not holding to statutory limitations so it is not reasonable to assume that adding more statutory constraints, unless there were consequences for board members who violate them, would make any difference.
Chairman Jay Barnes, through clever questioning, was able to address one of Mitten’s other concerns which was that the bills did not the lack of specific expertise requirements for candidates listed in the bills. The bills only require candidates to establish residency and not be connected with any denominational school, college, or university, or be the holder of or a candidate for any other public office. Barnes pointed out that out state’s attorney general is not required to be an attorney. Our state auditor is not required to be an auditor or CPA. Our state treasurer is not required to have a degree in accounting. It could also be noted that many of our current SBE members have never been classroom teachers.
We also delivered 572 witness statements in support of the bill thanks to Liberty Tools.
The only opposition to the bill was expressed by MNEA’s lobbyist who said their platform specifically speaks to having an appointed board. He believed that money spent on campaigns would be better spent on education itself.
Given that almost $2 billion was spent on the Kansas City School District back in the 90’s producing no discernible improvement in student outcomes, it is unlikely that the relatively small amount spent on such campaigns would have any appreciable effect on public schools.
The committee did not take any action on the bill on Monday. If the bills were to be passed this session, they would place this issue on the statewide ballot in November, asking the public to vote to approve this constitutional change. We will be watching the calendar to see if the Chairman puts it to a vote next week.