Berger took a good first step

Published December 2, 2021

By Tom Campbell

James W. Frick had a head full of Carolina common sense. Born in New Bern, in 1924, he was raised in a Catholic orphanage and graduated from Notre Dame. He became a nationally recognized fundraiser for his Alma Mater, but he is perhaps best known for his down-to-earth wisdom. “Don’t tell me where your priorities are,” Frick once said. “Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.” It’s true for people and more so for organizations.
It has long been acknowledged that state government’s most important function is education. We appropriate 58 cents of every tax dollar received by the state for k-12, university and community colleges.
The historical and legal role of our General Assembly has been as education’s banker, but since taking control of our state General Assembly in 2011, Republican leadership has increasingly inserted themselves into its operations, philosophies and practices. This year they passed a law forbidding the teaching of Critical Race Theory in grades k-12, although few really know what it is. Nor can they document many, if any, instances of it being taught in our public schools. Lawmakers appear to want to change our state’s history, even to the point of banning books with content they dislike.
But their hackles have really been raised by our state supported universities, which they contend doesn’t offer enough conservative philosophy to balance liberal teachings. With surgical precision they have changed the governing body of our universities, replacing Board of Governors members with those who march to lawmakers’ drumbeat. The Board of Governors fired one president, who they even admitted was doing a good job - except he was a Democrat. They essentially caused another to resign and a third “acting president” to withdraw his name from consideration for the permanent position. The BOG intimidated two chancellors to resign and named a member of their own board as chancellor at another university.
But there is one initiative in which they are on the right track. Prompted by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, arguably the most powerful politician in the state, lawmakers have long wanted to move the General Administration of the UNC System out of what they consider the liberal bastion of Chapel Hill. But Berger’s reason for including $11 million for the move in the current state budget makes sense. Berger is convinced the leadership of the universities should be housed in the same building with k-12 public schools and our community colleges, in order to promote closer communication and cooperation, something long discussed but never accomplished.
However, Berger stops short of taking the vital next step, that of reforming governance. If you drew a flow chart of education governance in our state it would look like a confusing, poorly engineered and ineffective multiheaded monster. The k-12 public schools are governed by a statewide elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, who reports to a board largely appointed by the Governor. Universities, as we said, are governed by a board entirely politically appointed by the legislature and Community Colleges are a really hot mess. They have a statewide president and board appointed by the governor and the legislature. But our 58 community colleges are essentially run by local boards consisting of 13 members appointed by the local school board, county board of commissioners and the governor. Our entire education structure wasn’t designed to be effective or yield exceptional outcomes and it hasn’t.
What might be a more effective system? There should be one governing body for all education, selected not by politics, but because of qualifications in business or civic affairs, experience in education and leaders representing the makeup of the state. Their first task would be to hire one overall head of education, giving that person a 10-year contract so he or she could have time to be effective without worrying about political interference or having to stand for election. That person would effectively be the CEO of education, refereeing competition between and communication and cooperation among all three branches of education. With the advice and consent of the board the CEO would appoint heads for the k-12, universities and community colleges, then all would collectively oversee their effectiveness.
We cannot have the education system we want in our state until it is more perfectly designed and governed. Berger got the first step right. He could become one of our state’s greatest leaders if he would wisely help guide that continued reform absent political influence.