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NC House bill seeks constitutional amendment to change education leadership

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North Carolina General Assembly live stream
The N.C. House Committee on Education met Wednesday and approved an education leadership bill along party lines.

North Carolina’s voters could see a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would change the way the state's education leaders are chosen.

House Bill 1173, which would shift the power to choose state Board of Education members from the governor to the voters, won approval from the House Education Committee on a party-line split Wednesday.

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North Carolina General Assembly
Rep. Hugh Blackwell

Rep. Hugh Blackwell opened the committee meeting by noting that two recent state superintendents — Democrat June Atkinson and Republican Mark Johnson — engaged in legal battles over the definition of their roles. Both, he said, posed the same essential question: "Who's in charge here?"

"The purpose of the constitutional amendment is to try to correct that problem going forward," he said.

Blackwell, a Burke County Republican, is lead sponsor of the bill, which would amend the state constitution to put the elected superintendent clearly in charge as chair of the state Board of Education. If approved by voters, the amendment would also abolish the governor’s power to appoint the state board. Instead, members would be elected by Congressional districts.

Blackwell says the change empowers voters and encourages accountability.

"If anything has become clear recently, the last few years, it’s that parents and voters feel like they need to have more of a say in what is happening in our schools, what kind of instruction is being delivered, what kind of leaders we have," Blackwell said.

Democrats raise concerns

North Carolina's constitution gives the governor authority to appoint 11 members of the state Board of Education to eight-year terms, subject to approval by the General Assembly. The lieutenant governor and state treasurer are also members, and the state superintendent is a non-voting member who serves as secretary and chief administrative officer.

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North Carolina General Assembly
Rep. Cecil Brockman

Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Democrat from Guilford County, said elections would distract board members from their mission.

"I have no idea on God’s green earth why we would make our officials who are supposed to be nonpartisan have to raise money and become partisan," he said.

Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat, said appointments ensure that students of color have voices to represent them on the state board. "Now I see the strong possibility of losing minority representation all around," she said.

Rep. Cynthia Ball, a Wake County Democrat, said partisan elections would make it more difficult for North Carolina’s 2.6 million unaffiliated voters to be represented.

For the past four years, the state board has been chaired by Eric Davis, an unaffiliated voter from Charlotte who previously chaired the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. He was appointed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2015 and reappointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper last year.

But Blackwell said it’s naive to think the board is truly nonpartisan.

"I think the people who are appointed by a partisan governor, be he or she Democrat or Republican, tend to be active partisans," he said.

Controversy has deep roots

North Carolina has seen decades of legal and legislative battles over the role of the superintendent, state Board of Education, governor and General Assembly in public education.

In 2008, the General Assembly hired a consultant to study the education governance structure and see how it compares with other states. Evergreen Solutions reported that North Carolina was one of 11 states that combines an appointed board and an elected superintendent.

The report cited the long history of wrangling and changes in the structure.

"These actions have sent a mixed and confusing message to stakeholders throughout North Carolina," the report notes. "From the perspective of thoughtful and consistent public policy, this shifting every few years of authority and roles has been confusing, inconsistent and largely politically driven."

Those conflicts and shifts have continued in the ensuing years. The Evergreen report was sent to House Education Committee members Wednesday as context for the latest proposal.

The committee approved the bill 14 to 7. The vote fell along party lines, with Republicans in support. The bill would require three-fifths approval of the House and Senate to be put on the ballot. If approved by the voters, changes would take effect in 2024 and apply to board terms beginning in 2025.

That seems unlikely, however. After the committee vote the bill was placed on the House calendar for Thursday, but it was then removed and sent to the House rules committee as the session adjourned.

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Updated: July 1, 2022 at 5:11 PM EDT
Updated July 1 with removal from the House calendar.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.