TAR HEEL VIEW: Court should end showdown over NC schools control

Who’s in charge of public education in North Carolina?

It’s a multiple-choice question. Possible answers are: the governor, the legislature, the State Board of Education, the superintendent of public instruction.

If you don’t know, don’t feel uninformed. No one does.

“For too long, the lack of clarity about DPI (Department of Public Instruction) leadership has fostered a system of non-accountability,” Superintendent Mark Johnson told WRAL last week. “While this system is great for shifting blame and avoiding responsibility, non-accountability at DPI hurts North Carolina students.”

That may be an overstatement, but an ambiguous leadership structure doesn’t help efficiency in administering educational programs across the state.

Political battles don’t help, either. One under way over education policy, not surprisingly, pits the governor against the legislature and is not productive.

The State Board of Education consists of the lieutenant governor, state treasurer and 11 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. The superintendent, who is elected statewide, is secretary to the board.

Last year, voters elected Democrat Roy Cooper as governor and Republican Johnson as superintendent. The Republican legislature then took steps to transfer power from the board to the superintendent. The board sued to stop the changes, but a three-judge panel recently ruled against it. The board will appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court.

The three-judge panel said the board failed to show that legislators violated the constitution by shifting authority to the superintendent. Yet, it also noted that “it appears to be the clear intent of the Constitution that the State Board shall have the primary authority to supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for the support thereof.”

The Supreme Court should draw that conclusion when it hears the case. It makes more sense, and surely was the intent, of the constitutional authors to give policy making authority to the board, leaving to the superintendent the role of carrying out the policy. The current arrangement — appointment by the governor, confirmation by the legislature — encourages the seating of board members who address education issues from a bipartisan perspective. Eight-year terms for board members insulates them from political pressure. The current chairman, Bill Cobey, a Republican appointed by former Gov. Pat McCrory, is a good example.

The superintendent is elected to a four-year term, meaning he or she begins running for re-election after just a couple of years in office. His or her name isn’t high on the ballot, so many voters don’t really know the candidates or their qualifications. Entrusting too much power in this one office is a mistake.

The Supreme Court can help clear up confusion over the constitutional roles of the state’s various education leaders. Clarity and accountability are important, and so is getting everyone to work together for the benefit of North Carolina’s children.

The Greensboro News & Record