A bill that could make the State Board of Education elect and install the state superintendent as its head passed a House education committee on Tuesday.
Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, a primary sponsor of the bill, said education leadership in North Carolina is confusing for voters.
“When they vote for the superintendent of public instruction, they think they’re voting for the person who runs education in the state,” he said.
But they’re not, he said, because there is also a State Board of Education whose members are appointed by the governor. And he said this fact can lead to conflict between the Board and the state superintendent.
He cited the 2009 lawsuit filed by then-Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson against Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue after Perdue created a “CEO” to run operations at the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Atkinson won, and the state superintendent is understood to be the administrator of DPI to this day. Read about that here.
“That’s not a healthy situation, and it seems to me we can clarify it in a logical way,” Blackwell said.
As mentioned, State Board of Education members are appointed by the governor, and the state superintendent is considered the secretary of the Board and cannot vote.
If passed, the bill would put a statewide referendum on the ballot asking voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to make the changes suggested in the bill.
Blackwell faced a lot of questions about his proposal, some of which mirror questions asked when he introduced an identical bill last year.
Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, recalled asking Blackwell last year whether he liked raising money for campaigns. Raising money, Brockman suggested last year, would force Board candidates to become more partisan.
“Are you worried about the State Board being politicized?” he asked Blackwell on Tuesday.
Blackwell told Brockman he would answer similarly to how he answered last year.
“Anybody that thinks politics is not involved in education I think has had their head in the sand,” he said.
Rep. Julie Von Haefen, D-Wake, asked legislative staff if there were any other states that elected both the state superintendent and State Board of Education. Staff said there were no others that could be found.
Later, staff also said nine states have a similiar structure as North Carolina.
Blackwell was also asked whether the Board elections would be partisan. He said the bill doesn’t specify. That would be left up to the legislature to decide if and when voters approved an amendment.
Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, told Blackwell that she thought the first part of the bill, making the state superintendent the chair of the Board, made sense to her. But she had concerns about taking away the governor’s power to appoint Board members.
Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, said that North Carolina is diverse and it made sense to let people from different areas of the state elect people to represent them, just as they can with other political positions.
“Anytime you can try to make something get closer to the people … I think it’s positive,” he said.
The bill passed 16-9 and goes now to the House Judiciary 3 committee.
State superintendent legislative presentation
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt was also at the committee meeting to present her legislative priorities. Below are her top policy priorities.
Her budget requests are in the slide below.
These priorities are part of the shared priorities voted on by the State Board of Education in January. See Truitt’s full presentation below.