Guest Opinion: Lawmakers propose electing state school board

Published 9:49 am Saturday, May 6, 2023

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By John Hood

Does North Carolina’s governance system for public schools need a radical overhaul? That’s what some state lawmakers are proposing. Before explaining what they have in mind, I ought to remind you how our current system works.

Fair warning, though: if you’re prone to severe headaches, you may want to skip the next few paragraphs.

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North Carolina’s constitution provides for a state superintendent of public instruction, elected statewide. The superintendent’s only specified constitutional power is to serve as “secretary and chief administrative officer” to the state board of education. By statute and legal precedent, the superintendent also runs the Department of Public Instruction.

The state board of education, by contrast, isn’t primarily elected. Its members include the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer and 11 members appointed by the governor. Eight of those appointees represent “educational districts” while the remaining three represent North Carolinians as a whole.

Neither the superintendent nor the state board, made up primarily of gubernatorial appointees, can fairly be described as the most powerful actor in K-12 governance, however. That distinction belongs to the state legislature, which not only must confirm appointments to the state board but also exercises broad discretion over the funding and operation of our public schools.

The legislature has, in turn, authorized the creation of local school districts governed by elected school boards and the local superintendents they appoint. County commissions also play a role as appropriators, though it’s a relatively small one. On average, localities fund just 28% of school budgets in North Carolina, with state funds making up 62% and federal funds 10%. In the average state, the local and state shares are roughly identical.

Over the decades, relationships among the legislature, the governor, the state superintendent, the state board, local school boards, and county commissions have gyrated wildly. Sometimes they are largely in alignment and cooperate. Other times they find themselves out of alignment, engage in partisan or institutional conflict, and even take each other to court (which makes North Carolina’s judiciary yet another player in the governance system).

Republican House members Hugh Blackwell of Burke County, John Torbett of Gaston County, Jon Hardister of Guilford County, and David Willis of Union County believe one way to straighten out North Carolina’s tangled system of K-12 governance would be to make the state board of education a fully elected body, rather than a mostly appointed one. Under the constitutional amendment for which they are primary sponsors, the lieutenant governor, state treasurer and state superintendent would all be members of the new board, along with (as of now) 14 other members elected from districts. The superintendent would automatically chair the state board and the number of district members would always equal the size of the U.S. House delegation.

Democrats are outraged at the prospect of excluding the governor from any role in selecting (or serving on) the state board. Some Republicans are also nervous about the idea, I hear, perhaps because they can imagine a scenario in which future Republican legislatures or governors might have to contend with a Democratic-majority state board of education.

For many North Carolinians, however, the most important question is probably whether any of this would affect student outcomes. There aren’t a lot of relevant studies, as it turns out, so as an exercise I pulled reading and math scores (adjusted for student background) for America’s 10 most-populous states and compared them against methods of selecting state school boards and superintendents. There wasn’t much of a pattern. The big states with the best public schools are, in order, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Texas. Only the latter has an elected state board. The worst four — Pennsylvania, California, New York and Michigan — also have a mixture of governance systems.

I have yet to form a firm opinion of the proposed constitutional amendment. But here’s what I will say: if you think it will have a large effect on school quality, positive or negative, I’d like to see your work.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.