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Is it time to eliminate the State Board of Education?
Empowering the superintendent would give voters the ability to hold leaders accountable on education policy
Rarely has more attention been paid to education policy, here in North Carolina or around the country. It's worth spending some time on education governance, as well.
While policy outlines what and how schools should teach, governance outlines who gets to decide. Arguably, that's just as important — and in our state, it could use some work.
As it stands today, education governance in North Carolina is shared between three particular entities: a State Board of Education appointed by the governor, a Superintendent of Public Instruction elected statewide, and the General Assembly.
They form a convoluted system that’s slow to change and not very responsive to the people of North Carolina.
We'll get into the nuts and bolts of why this is and why it matters in a minute. But the upshot is this: Under our current system, the people of North Carolina have little say in statewide education management. Voters can weigh in on the types of education laws they’d like to see — but have no real way to make sure they’re implemented properly.
Who's responsible for education in North Carolina
There have been minor tweaks along the way, but the main structure of education governance and policy has been relatively stable since the 1940s.
Local policy is set by county or city boards of education. All 100 counties have a school board, and so do 15 cities (like Chapel Hill, Mooresville, and Kannapolis). Under state law, these boards of education are responsible for:
Operating individual schools and extracurricular activities
Hiring and firing school teachers and personnel, including a district superintendent
Creating a curriculum to meet the state's standard course of study for each grade level
Implementing state laws regarding things like class sizes and school year calendars.
At the state level, though, the governance structure is more complicated. Three main entities have their hand in implementing education policy.
1) State Board of Education. The State Board of Education is made up of the lieutenant governor, state treasurer, and 11 people appointed by the governor. These board members serve eight-year terms, meaning it takes until the end of a governor’s second term until he or she can fully turn over the board.
The state board has the broadest general authority over education policy implementation, including the power to:
Determine a "standard course of study" for each grade level
Set content standards for each subject area
Set graduation requirements
North Carolina’s State Board of Education is required by the state constitution and dates back to 1868, when it was made up of only Council of State officials. The governor began appointing the majority of its members after a 1942 constitutional amendment.
2) Superintendent of Public Instruction. Every four years, the state of North Carolina elects a superintendent of public instruction, per the N.C. Constitution. The position also dates back to the 1868 constitution. The state superintendent is a member of the Council of State and leads the Department of Public Instruction. The superintendent is also the secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education.
Much like a local school district superintendent, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction presents reports and proposals to the State Board of Education. Other than that, though, there is very little statutory power in this position.
3) General Assembly. The state legislature has the highest authority when it comes to public education. The General Assembly can pass laws that the superintendent and State Board of Education have to implement. However, the General Assembly does not have the executive authority to implement its laws.
The problems with this form of governance
There are three main problems with the way North Carolina’s education governance is set up.
First, it vests a disproportionate amount of power in the State Board of Education, an unelected, unaccountable organization. Board members serve eight-year terms, meaning they will outlast any administration that appoints them. There’s no real way to hold board members accountable, even as a governor or legislature.
This is a big problem. Unlike most executive branch boards and commissions, the State Board of Education wields real power — and operates with a mind of its own.
Second, our education governance system discounts a statewide elected official, the Superintendent of Public Instruction. What is the point of going through the trouble of electing such a person if he or she has no real power? Why should an unelected board have this power instead?
And finally, the system of governance is designed to create pointless conflict between the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Functionally, the relationship between the state board and the superintendent is similar to that between local school boards and their superintendents. School boards set policy for their districts, and the superintendents are responsible for carrying them out.
But there's a key difference: Local school boards hire and fire their superintendents as they see fit. The state superintendent of public instruction is elected statewide. That creates an ongoing power struggle between constitutional offices, for no apparent reason.
Would House Bill 17 fix this?
A new bill that's close to a vote on the House floor seeks to fix these problems by making the State Board of Education elected directly by the people, rather than appointed by the governor.
It's a fairly simple bill: If a constitutional amendment were to be approved by the people of North Carolina, State Board of Education members would be elected to four-year terms. The number of members would be equal to the number of U.S. House representatives the state is allotted, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction would be the chair of the board.
This would be an improvement on the current method. It would make the State Board of Education directly accountable to the people of North Carolina, and take steps to right the relationship between the board and the superintendent.
However, it also creates other problems. Down-ballot races can already face issues with candidate quality. There’s no guarantee that voters will get enough information to make the right choices in these elections. It may be better to leave education accountability to higher-profile offices, where it’s easier for voters to make a clear choice.
Let's go further. Eliminate the State Board of Education.
So House Bill 17 likely doesn’t go far enough. I’m not convinced that the State Board of Education needs to remain intact at all, elected or otherwise.
State education boards have been around for so long that it’s hard to find any written rationale for why they’re important. In theory, a State Board of Education can insulate education policy from partisan politics and provide some stability from administration to administration.
In practice, though, these so-called benefits do not materialize. Education policy is inherently political; there’s no way to escape partisanship here, nor is there much reason to try. And “stable” can sometimes just be a nice way of saying “stuck in a rut.”
Implementing education policy feels much more like a core executive branch function best handled by a statewide elected official. Two better scenarios come to mind:
The governor directly appoints a cabinet-level education secretary, eliminating the Superintendent of Public Instruction
The Superintendent of Public Instruction is given much more latitude to implement education laws, putting the position on par with the state treasurer or secretary of state.
In both scenarios, a Board of Education could continue in a much more reduced role, perhaps more like the Board of Transportation’s relationship with the Department of Transportation. This would allow the public to still get a window into decision-making — the one big advantage the current system has.
Eliminating the State Board of Education would not be without precedent. Minnesota's legislature voted in 1998 to ax its education board through a bill signed by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, transferring power to its state superintendent (a gubernatorial appointee).
New Mexico did something similar in 2003, arguing that its state board of education was too large and cumbersome to effectively manage the school system. Empowering a cabinet-level superintendent to run the state education system "clearly sets public education as a priority ... while making the executive branch more directly responsible and accountable for the improved performance of our public schools," according to a legislative memo.
This seems right to me. In the long run, North Carolina is best served when the people who govern education policy are directly accountable to the people of the state. After more than 150 years, it seems like a State Board of Education isn’t the best way to handle it.
4 things of note
Cooper administration blasts "betrayal" by state controller for following the law
It's not too often that a quote makes me gasp. But that was exactly my reaction when I read this column from the N&O about the dust-up between Gov. Roy Cooper and his state controller, the person responsible for disbursing the government's money, in relation to the Leandro case.
"We put him in there so he would do the right thing,” somebody told Ned Barnett, who did not disclose the source but said it was a "close associate" of Cooper's. “It’s a betrayal of Cooper and the schoolchildren of North Carolina.”
In case you miss the significance, here’s a quick recap on how we got to this point: There's a long-running court case in North Carolina, known as the Leandro case, that attempts to adjudicate whether the state is fulfilling its obligations when it comes to education. The courts have ruled that North Carolina has a duty to provide a "sound, basic education" to all students.
Last year, the N.C. Supreme Court's former Democrat majority ruled that the General Assembly was obligated to spend nearly $2 billion to fund its preferred plan to accomplish this goal. This obviously created a constitutional crisis, as only the state legislature has the authority to spend the people's money.
The case is back at the trial court level, where a judge is supposed to determine exactly how much money is to be spent on this plan. However, there's also a new Republican majority at the N.C. Supreme Court, one that appears to be less activist and more reverent of the law.
All this puts the state controller, Nels Roseland, in a tough spot. He could be subject to arrest and other penalties for spending money with General Assembly authorization. He's now asking the Supreme Court for a little bit of clarity on what he's supposed to do. In short, he wants to know how he can best follow the law and avoid civil and criminal penalties for himself and his staff.
That sounds pretty fair to me. But not to Gov. Roy Cooper. In the governor's mind, he just appointed Roseland as controller, so he should be obligated to do what he wants, immediately. Anything short of that is "betrayal."
I've written about this at length in the past, but Gov. Cooper is not the kindly Mr. Rogers figure he wants people to believe. He is ruthless, and this is simply the latest example of it.
Will abortion pill lawsuit yield another collusive settlement from AG Josh Stein?
Attorney General Josh Stein announced last week that he agrees with the arguments made in a lawsuit challenging state laws regulating the use of the abortion pill.
That raises the specter of another collusive settlement between Stein's office and liberal activists to undermine North Carolina law. The state attorney general is legally obligated to defend state laws in court, but Stein has made it a habit to attack them instead.
In this latest instance, a Chapel Hill doctor and pro-abortion activist sued Stein and members of the state medical board in January, claiming that North Carolina's abortion laws are invalid when it comes to the abortion pill mifepristone. Basically, the argument is that since federal regulations allow for the abortion pill to be dispensed via telemedicine and through a pharmacy, state law cannot be more restrictive than that.
Currently, North Carolina's abortion law does not distinguish between different methods of killing the unborn. Because state law requires abortions to be performed by a "qualified physician" in a certified clinic, that means abortion pills have to be dispensed there, too.
Stein's announcement makes it clear that he has no interest in defending North Carolina's law, and will actually argue against it in court. He could even enter into some sort of collusive settlement with the pro-abortion activists, nullifying parts of the state's abortion law.
That would be similar to what happened in 2020, when the General Assembly and State Board of Elections struggled with how to handle a statewide election amid COVID restrictions. In that case, a Democrat activist sued Stein claiming North Carolina's absentee voting rules were too strict. Stein agreed and reached a "settlement" that made the state's voting laws much laxer.
In 2021, the General Assembly ratified a bill that would prohibit such settlements without the approval of the state legislature. It was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, and no override votes were taken.
It sounds like that law would come in awfully handy right about now.
North Carolina headed to another massive budget surplus
North Carolina is projected to collect $3.2 billion in taxes above the amount expected in the budget, according to a new forecast from economists with the Office of State Budget and Management and the General Assembly's Fiscal Research Division.
In many ways, this is a good thing. You'd much rather have a budget surplus than a budget deficit. It also shows that North Carolina's economy continues to grow faster than projected. It's truly an economic success story.
However, another massive budget surplus also shows that the state is collecting far more in taxes than it needs. The personal income tax rate has been falling, but clearly not fast enough.
Sen. Danny Britt considering run for attorney general
Robeson County Republican Sen. Danny Britt is considering a run for N.C. attorney general, and will likely make a decision by June, according to the Do Politics Better podcast. Last week, Britt posted on Twitter that he had a meeting with the consulting group The Differentiators about his "political options." In follow-up texts with the Do Politics Better folks, Britt reportedly said that some other potential "big names" were considering getting in the AG race and their decisions would influence whether he jumps in himself.
Former Rep. Tom Murry has already announced a campaign for the office, and N.C. Chamber general counsel Ray Starling has hinted that he may seek the Republican nomination for attorney general as well.
1 good idea from another state
Florida considers dropping sales tax on baby, toddler items. As part of a broader sales tax realignment, Florida is considering eliminating the sales tax on vital baby and toddler necessities like cribs, strollers and clothing.
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