Voters have elected a state superintendent of public instruction every four years since California adopted its Constitution in 1849. That was long before candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and nearly every other office fixated on education.
By appointing their own cabinet-level education secretaries, "Education Governor" Gray Davis and his predecessor, "Education Governor" Pete Wilson, made the position redundant. This overlap squanders money and diffuses responsibility and if Californians really care about education, they'll demand that Sacramento address the matter.
Meanwhile, since the nonpartisan office is on the March 5 ballot, we endorse State Sen. Jack O'Connell, (D-San Luis Obispo) for state superintendent. O'Connell is running against two women with good ideas that the state cannot afford to ignore. Like O'Connell, State Assemblywoman Lynne C. Leach (R-Walnut Creek) faces term limits in the Legislature. Her $150,000 war chest, though respectable, falls far short of the $1 million O'Connell has raised. The businesswoman stands out for her proposals to run the state education department like a business--complete with sound fiscal management.
The most refreshing voice in the race belongs to Katherine H. Smith, school board president of the Anaheim Union High School District, who championed school uniforms long before the requirement became popular and who advocated a moment of silence every morning--not for school prayer, necessarily, but to encourage students to settle down so teaching can begin. Smith, however, has little name recognition outside of Orange County and not much money in the bank.
O'Connell has neither of those problems and, as a former high school teacher who specialized in education during nearly two decades as an assemblyman and senator, he has the perfect portfolio for the job. Like most state Democrats, O'Connell is close to the California Teachers Assn. But he demonstrated his independence when he supported merit pay for teachers. He fought the burdensome two-thirds majority needed to pass school bond measures. (The requirement is now 55%, a margin most school districts can rally from voters.) He also wrote legislation to reduce the size of classes to no more than 20 students per teacher in the early grades--a reform that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson correctly forced public schools to implement quickly over the objections of the current state superintendent of public education, Delaine Eastin. Indeed, O'Connell's ability to get along with both Democrats and Republicans should make him more effective than Eastin in dealing with any governor and the Legislature.
Still, the state superintendent has little power to act unilaterally. The governor and Legislature set the state's budget. The State Board of Education, approved by the governor, establishes education policy. That said, Jack O'Connell wants the job, and voters should give him a chance.