Right issue, wrong solution

Published March 9, 2023

By Tom Campbell

You have to give legislators credit for identifying an issue that has needed addressing for decades. They introduced a bill that would eliminate the power of the sitting governor to name the members of the State Board of Education. The proposed legislation would have State Board of Education members elected by the voters.
There are at least three problems with this proposal. First, this bill is little more than a political ploy. Lawmakers really just want to further limit the authority of the governor, and the fact that this governor is not a member of their party makes it even more egregious in their eyes. It’s a power play.
Secondly, it won’t solve the very real governance issue. There are too many cooks in the education kitchen. Allow me to explain. We have a State Superintendent of Public Instruction, elected by all the voters of our state. But the Super isn’t the decisionmaker. That authority resides with the State Board of Education (SBOE), appointed by the sitting governor. We’ve had lawsuits to straighten this mess out and the courts affirm our Constitution in saying the State Board establishes education policy and the Superintendent, Secretary to that Board, administers those policies.
And never forget that we have 170 members of the legislature who think they know more about educating students than any professionals. Their primary role is to be the banker, but they constantly meddle in policy, course offerings, school year length, pay for teachers and administrators and most any other education issue that strikes their fancy.
For fear of confusing an already confounding issue, North Carolina has 100 County and 15 City school districts, each interpreting and administering policy and each with a Superintendent and locally elected board. Then there’s the 161 charter schools in our state with approximately 82,000 students, operating under separate regulations than traditional district schools. For instance, they aren’t required to provide cafeterias, school busses or equal licensure requirements.
While Article XI, Section 4 of our Constitution deals with public school governance, the honest answer to the question of who is really in charge of public education is: We Don’t Know. And neither do the teachers, parents, students or taxpayers.
The third problem with the proposed legislation is the sheer hypocrisy of it. Legislators have total authority to appoint the Board of Governors (BOG) in charge of our state supported university system and will fight to the death any suggestion of interference from anyone else. However, they think it fine to take away the governor’s authority to appoint the State Board of Education members. Maybe we should elect both of them.
The governor has appointed the members of the SBOE for as long as any can remember. But the legislature’s authority to appoint the BOG came as a result of a deal former Governor Bob Scott made with the legislature back in 1972. The only way Scott could get that legislature to agree to consolidate all 16 state-supported colleges into one system was to offer them the power to name the governors. It was a bad agreement in 1972 and is even worse today. It has turned into a political tool for legislators and doesn’t come close to representing the makeup of our state.
And community colleges have their own governance issues.
Here’s my spin: If you agree that education is the single most important function of state government, then we should also agree that we want to offer the very best education to our children and young folks. They are our future. But we can’t provide the best if we don’t begin with the best foundation for k-12, public universities and community colleges. The three aren’t working well individually and certainly don’t work together well for a seamless education system. 
And another point upon which I agree with our legislature. Recognizing that the three above systems don’t cooperate and work together for the best education outcomes, the legislature removed the administration of the universities from Chapel Hill and is building a new building in the downtown campus of state government to house the three. That could possibly help but won’t if we don’t reorganize the whole educational system.
Sooner or later North Carolina will come around to restructuring tax supported education into one system with three branches. There would be an education CEO, if you will, and each branch would have its own executive, much like a corporation with separate divisions. The ultimate oversight will be provided by a board holding them all accountable. Only with such a structure will we get the proper governance for public education.
What I don’t have settled yet is who picks the CEO, individual execs and names the overall board. I’m not comfortable having either the legislature or governor make those selections because politics will infiltrate and corrupt the independence and achievements of each. Other states might provide some valuable insights on these questions.
But it is an inescapable fact that we need better governance than what we have if our state is going to excel in education.