When it comes to school reform-minded governors, once and future Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber would not come to mind. During the eight years he served in Salem from 1995 to 2003, he was far-less aggressive on education than contemporaries such as Roy Barnes in Georgia, future President George W. Bush (then in Texas), and Dubya’s brother, Jeb. Nor did he offer much more when he successfully ran for a return to office last year. Even the move last year by the NEA’s Beaver State affiliate to endorse his rival in the Democratic primary had more to do with his proposal to fund schools based on performance — a novel concept that has been used unsuccessfully at the higher-ed level because it never involves disturbing existing funds — than with any pioneering efforts. Declared Oregonian columnist Steve Duin last year after reading one of Kitzhaber’s policy statements: “education reform isn’t part of his learning curve or his agenda.”

But this year, Kitzhaber may have actually set in motion what could be one of the most-important reform efforts that states should undertake: Reforming how states govern their K-12 schools and universities. Whether or not the effort is successful in the long run is a different story. But it does show reform-minded governors, including Chris Christie in New Jersey and even Mitch Daniels (now serving out his last years in Indiana), what they can and should do in order to sustain their reforms.

As Dropout Nation noted earlier this week, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative has definitely set in motion a series of reforms that have helped weaken the influence of teachers unions, push states (including those that never won federal money) to require the use of student performance data (including test score growth) in teacher evaluations, put more teachers under private sector-style performance management, and fostered the expansion of school choice. The effort, along with the school accountability measures enacted as part of the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, have also signaled the long-running shift of control of education from school districts (who were always mere tools of state governments) to the state level.

Yet states have not taken the opportunities given to them by Race to the Top and No Child to overhaul the byzantine structures of governance crafted a century ago by progressive reformers fearful of centralized power. Only 12 states allow for the governor to appoint chief state school officers, and only 33 governors have the power to appoint the majority or all of the members of state boards of education. In states such as California and Indiana, K-12 schools and universities are governed by an unwieldy array of boards, superintendents, university presidents, and bureaucracies, each competing to justify their existence. In many states, the teacher licensing agencies are separated from state departments of education, even though the functions should be under one roof; policymaking over matters such as setting cut scores on standardized tests end up being handled by different boards. And the shamble of results, especially when it comes to school reform, can be seen in muddied policies, turf-battles over policymaking, and stalled efforts on any sort of reform (including anything involving developing school data systems).

Reform-minded governors could use school reform as opportunities to reshape how schools are governed. But most have not. During his first campaign for Indiana governor, Daniels proposed to make the state education superintendent an appointed office, but never followed through on that plan; given the legacy of legendary predecessor Paul McNutt, who ramrodded a series to consolidations during the Great Depression (and Daniels’ own efforts on that front), it may not have even been possible. Earlier this year, Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire offered up a ham-fisted plan to combine all state education agencies into one mega-operation; that plan didn’t go anywhere. Meanwhile governors such as Jerry Brown in California and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin have simply abdicated their responsibilities on the education front.

Until July, the most-successful move in that direction was by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who convinced the legislature to expand the powers of the state’s emergency financial managers taking over school districts such as Detroit; but that move is still just whittling around the edges of massive, often-incompetent bureaucracies. Still, too few governors have proven willing to use their political capital to battle for the needed overhauls of how schools are governed. And these are the kind of battles that must come — especially in states that won Race to the Top dollars — in order to sustain reform.

Turning symbolism into reality: Kitzhaber education adviser Ben Cannon. Photo courtesy of the Oregonian.

But now comes Kitzhaber, who managed to work with a Democrat-controlled senate and a house equally split between the two major parties to successfully pass a law creating a new board of education that will control all of the elementary, secondary and postsecondary system. Kitzhaber and his successors would be able to appoint every member of that agency. The new law also ends the election of state school superintendents, merging that role into the governor’s job. As a result, by 2014, Kitzhaber (or whoever succeeds him in the governor’s office) will also directly run the state’s public school and education finance systems.

Making the governor the chief state schools officer is certainly symbolic; the real work will be done by whoever Kitzhaber or his successor appoints as his second-in-command in charge of education. This is where the proverbial devil is in the details of policymaking and executing.

Kitzhaber will have to do more than just appoint teacher-turned-state legislator Ben Cannon (who has been a player in pushing through the governor’s reform agenda) as his education adviser. He will need to follow the step taken by Bill Haslam in Tennessee and appoint a strong, thoughtful, nationally-known school reformer to be the chief agitator for reform. This reformer, along with Cannon, will have to play good cop-bad cop in order to get things done. Kitzhaber will have to also keep his Spitzer-like reputation in check; he can’t afford to be an Oregon version of Adrian Fenty, behaving arrogantly when he should play nice; he should also continue to stare down the NEA in order to succeed. And Kitzhaber must address the state’s teacher quality issues. Two of the Beaver State’s ed schools have already been criticized by the National Council on Teacher Quality for their lackluster efforts in training aspiring teachers; the fact that NCTQ has had to filed open records requests just to get other ed schools in the state to cooperate with its national evaluation effort also doesn’t look good. Kitzhaber should put public pressure on the ed schools to cooperate fully, and shape up their offerings.

But the move in Oregon is symbolism with substance. It signals what should always be the case in every state: That governors should be responsible for the direction of education in their states. Given that the increasingly knowledge-based economy makes high-quality critical even for blue-collar jobs and long-term economic growth, governors should be actively working to overhaul schools. Every governor should look at Kitzhaber’s effort and launch their own campaigns to overhaul how their states govern schools. Given the waning influence of NEA and AFT affiliates in many states — and the budget-cutting tools states have at their disposal to reduce opposition from suburban districts — the time is now.