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EdExplainer | The role and responsibilities of the superintendent of public instruction

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Voters will select a new superintendent of public instruction this November and will choose between Republican Michele Morrow and Democrat Mo Green. But what are the state superintendent’s duties, and what is the scope of their responsibility to North Carolina’s public schools?

The state superintendent serves in North Carolina’s executive branch and is in charge of day-to-day operations of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), serves as secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education, and serves in the North Carolina Council of State. 

The roles and responsibilities of the state superintendent. Lanie Sorrow/EducationNC

The role of the superintendent

The North Carolina state constitution, most recently updated in 1971, calls for a superintendent of public instruction in Article III, Section 7 to be elected every four years to serve a four-year term. The office has no term limits.

Article IX, Section 2 of the constitution states the superintendent will serve as “the secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education.”

North Carolina’s general statutes also outline several duties and responsibilities for the state superintendent, which include:

  • Organizing, establishing, and administering funds for DPI as approved by the State Board of Education (SBE)
  • Advocating and informing the state on important issues and information about the needs of public schools by maintaining relationships with school personnel, appearing at public gatherings, and connecting with the press
  • Meeting with the governor to discuss public schools and provide recommendations for potential legislation 30 days before each of the General Assembly’s regular sessions
  • Distributing “educational bulletins” to promote “public sentiment” for public education and professional development for educators
  • Supervising and managing all public school system matters
  • Establishing special funds in DPI to manage nongovernmental grants 
  • Managing and carrying out all rules and regulations from the SBE
  • Directing staff services (unless the staff is appointed by the SBE) 
  • Supporting the SBE and executing federal programs for the Board

Legislation in 2016 passed by the General Assembly affirmed the superintendent’s power as the “administrative head of the Department of Public Instruction,” transferring some powers from the SBE to the superintendent.

Later that year, the SBE filed a lawsuit citing the law as unconstitutional, but the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the legislation was valid.

Some superintendents may also choose to establish a vision through their leadership. Current State Superintendent Catherine Truitt created Operation Polaris in 2021 and Operation Polaris 2.0 in 2023.

Operation Polaris works to provide guidance for DPI and the SBE in collaboration with educational stakeholders to move past educational issues, such as learning loss, brought about by the pandemic.  

Serving on the State Board of Education

As the superintendent leads DPI, they work with the State Board of Education, which has constitutional authority to lead the general administration of public education.

The State Board of Education is responsible for managing state education funds while establishing policy and procedures such as course content, testing requirements, and more for public schools. The superintendent administers funds for the Board, including finances that go to support school districts. 

Though the superintendent is an elected position, the governor appoints the SBE’s 11 members who serve eight-year terms. The lieutenant governor and state treasurer also serve on the SBE.

The State Board of Education, with which the superintendent serves as secretary and chief administrative officer, convenes monthly for regular meetings. The superintendent is not a voting member of the board, but must make recommendations to the Board and keep meeting minutes. 

Leading DPI

DPI, under the leadership of the superintendent, serves and guides North Carolina’s 115 public school districts and more than 2,500 public schools, including more than 200 charter schools, nine lab schools, a regional school, and the state’s three residential schools serving hard of hearing, deaf, and visually impaired students, according to DPI.

The superintendent leads DPI as it executes state laws and standards for public education from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The department is also responsible for licensing public school teachers and administrators and remains in charge of the 174,981 full-time public school employees.

DPI administers more than $17.2  billion in local, state, and federal public school funding.

The department is responsible for creating Standard Courses of Study and presenting them to the State Board for approval. The standards direct the content of subjects taught to public school students and the assessments and accountability model used to monitor progress of students, schools and districts. 

DPI supports schools with curriculum, finance, professional development and more, according to DPI

There are three dual reports to the superintendent and State Board, including general counsel, internal auditor, and director of board operations and policy. The superintendent has three special advisors on teacher, principal, and workforce engagement. DPI includes seven divisions and the office of school and district transformation.

The superintendent oversees DPI’s more than 1,000 employees. DPI currently has 1,014 employees, 139 contractors and 651 temporary employees.

Serving on the Council of State

The Council of State features 10 elected officials, including the superintendent of public instruction. The governor chairs the council, and it convenes monthly.