Guest Opinion: Vetoed education bill gives Democrats chance to stand up for legislative branch

Published 12:12 pm Monday, July 25, 2022

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By Mitch Kokai, Carolina Journal

Democrats in the N.C. House and Senate face an excellent opportunity to stand up for the power of state government’s legislative branch.

They can thank the state’s chief executive for placing them in their current position.

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The unique opportunity stems from Senate Bill 593. It would change the governing structure for three state-run schools. Two serve deaf students. The other serves the blind.

Current law calls for the State Board of Education, made up primarily of the governor’s appointees, to serve as “the solve governing agency” for all three schools. The elected state superintendent and the Department of Public Instruction handle administration and oversight.

Under S.B. 593, the state education board’s role would shift to “general supervision.” The state board would adopt rules governing new boards of trustees for each school. The new five-member trustee boards would serve as governing agencies.

Legislative leaders would appoint four members to each new board, with the governor handling the fifth appointment.

As far as this observer can tell, there is no partisan battle brewing over schools for the deaf and blind. Republicans and Democrats haven’t been feuding over the best ways to serve students attending the three schools.

If a partisan angle exists, it didn’t surface as the bill moved through the General Assembly. The state House approved the measure, 109-0, with the Senate following suit, 40-4. Senate Democrats cast all four “no” votes, but 15 of their colleagues and 44 Democratic House counterparts endorsed the plan.

Yet Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill on July 11.

“Not only is this bill blatantly unconstitutional, it continues this legislature’s push to give more control of education to Boards of Trustees made up of partisan political appointees,” Cooper complained in his veto message.

The governor offered no explanation of what made the bill “blatantly” unconstitutional. Nor did he back up his assertion that the new boards — including his own appointees — would serve “partisan political” roles.

The governor’s veto message instead laments legislators’ past decisions to end his appointment of trustees for University of North Carolina System schools and two state community college boards.

“And now, this bill removes administration of the important N.C. Schools for the Deaf and Blind from the State Board of Education to a newly created board with 80% of the trustees, who may or may not know how to run these schools, appointed by the legislature,” Cooper wrote. “The students at the schools deserve steady, knowledgeable leadership rather than becoming a part of the erosion of statewide education oversight.”

It’s unclear how S.B. 593’s change in governance would hurt “steady, knowledgeable leadership” at the schools. Nothing in the bill calls for changes in instruction. Nor is there any indication that a school-specific board of trustees would offer worse “leadership” than the state board charged with dealing with education policy for all public K-12 schools across the state.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, endorsed the bill. She has urged the General Assembly to override Cooper’s veto.

Given the State Board of Education’s continued “general” supervision of the schools and its role in setting rules for the trustees, it’s also unclear how the bill would erode education oversight.

It’s likely that Cooper simply objects to any governing board in which he lacks a majority of input.

It’s the same type of complaint he lodged when lawmakers attempted to limit built-in partisan bias within the state elections board. Rather than accept a new board that would contain an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, Cooper sued. He argued that he needed partisan control over election oversight. State courts sided with him.

Republican legislative leaders have yet to say whether they will seek a veto override vote for S.B. 593. It’s possible that lawmakers will decline a fight with the governor.

Even if the bill re-emerges when lawmakers return to Raleigh, legislative Democrats might decline to cross Cooper. Few have been willing to take that step in recent years. I’ve argued in the past that lawmakers ought to add a “yellow” option to the “green” and “red” buttons on their voting machines. “Yellow” would help legislative Democrats signal that they support a bill only until the governor orders them to reject it.

S.B. 593 presents these Democrats a chance to stand up for the legislative branch.

Yes, Republican legislative leaders would make appointments to these new trustee boards now. But there’s no indication that the appointments would add partisanship to instruction of the deaf and blind. Plus, Democratic legislators would hold the appointment power in the future if they can win control of the state House or Senate.

Future legislative Democrats attempting to check a future Republican governor would want as strong a legislative branch as possible. They would thank their predecessors for standing up for the General Assembly today.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.