State Senate votes to take schools chief off ballot

SALEM — In a bid to centralize authority over schools, the Oregon Senate on Wednesday approved a measure that would make the governor the superintendent of public instruction and take away voters' ability to choose the state's top schools official.

Senators approved the measure on a 23-7 vote, sending it to the House. The measure makes the governor the nominal schools head and requires him to hire a deputy superintendent with at least five years of education experience to run the day-to-day operations of the Department of Education.

Proponents of SB 552 said the governor has a louder bullhorn to advocate for education, and they said many of the state's brightest education minds may be deterred from seeking the top schools job because they don't want to mount a campaign.

"We need leadership in the classroom. We need leadership in the school front office. And we need leadership here in Salem," said Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, a supporter of the bill. "That leadership is going to best be attained by building a bigger pool of the most qualified candidates that we can find to lead our schools."

Opponents said voters, not the Legislature, should determine whether the position comes off the ballot. Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, said proponents are trying to sidestep voters because they know the proposal "would probably fail at the ballot box."

Oregon's superintendent of public instruction runs the Department of Education and is responsible for curriculum and instruction programs, school improvement and standardized testing.

"Having a separate voice and an elected superintendent is very important because of how passionate people feel about education," said Susan Castillo, the current superintendent.

Under the bill, the governor would become the superintendent when Castillo leaves office. Her term ends in January 2015.

Gov. John Kitzhaber applauded the Senate's "strong bipartisan vote."

"This bill is a key component of our effort to build a coordinated and accountable education system," Kitzhaber said in a statement. "I urge the House to quickly approve Senate Bill 552 as we continue working to improve public education in Oregon."

Kitzhaber and Castillo are both Democrats.

Kitzhaber has proposed centralizing education programs from preschool to college under a single oversight board controlled by the governor.

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