Tom Campbell

The recent skirmish between the state Board of Education and Superintendent for Public Instruction is yet another reminder of the longstanding debate about just who is in charge of public education in our state. This lack of clarity has taken too much energy. Instead of arguing over who is in charge we should be focusing on how to make education better. It is time to resolve the question.

Article IX of our constitution is devoted to education, arguably the most important function of state government. Almost 60 cents of every tax dollar is spent for k-12, community college and university education. Section 4 deals specifically with k-12 education and says there will be a state Board of Education of 13 members, to include the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer and 11 members from eight districts appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. It further says there will be a superintendent of public instruction who is secretary and administrative officer of the board.

In Article III of our guiding document, it says the superintendent is required to be elected by the voters of the state. So, we’ve got someone elected by all the people who supposedly reports to an appointed board. Can you see the problem?

It gets further complicated. While the primary function of the legislature is to fund education, our lawmakers actively participate in policy, management and regulatory decisions, perhaps because they also don’t know who is supposed to be running things. Then we have 115 local education agencies (school systems) among the 100 counties of our state, each with a local superintendent and locally elected boards of education; each believes they should make decisions about public education. And we won’t even get into the almost 200 charter schools that play by different rules than traditional public schools.

Nobody with a stitch of common sense would design a structure like ours and expect it to excel in educating our children. Changes are needed, but any major change will first require voter approval to revise our constitution.

We made a cursory examination of the governance structures in other states and there appears to be a consensus among them for an appointed state Board of Education. In some states those appointments come from the governor, in others from the legislature and, in a few states, both make appointments. That board is charged with setting policy and rules for schools and we like the concept that in some states the board then appoints the commissioner, superintendent or secretary of education.

This is not too dissimilar to the way North Carolina’s public universities are governed and helps ensure that the chief executive officer and the board work together.

But the major sticking point is who appoints the board? Our recent history is littered with partisan political appointments not made because of any education experience or expertise. We should not entrust decision-making to people whose only qualification is that they garnered favor with politicians. Surely we have not come to a point where our leaders cannot put aside their partisan loyalties in favor of what is best for our children.

We can and must fix the governance issue if we want excellence in education.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN” on UNC-TV.

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