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Superintendent of Public Instruction: Out you go?

One bill filed this session would scrap the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education, and replace them with a Secretary of Education appointed by the governor. 

“You want one spokesman for the schools,” Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman said. “Right now, you got the state elected School Superintendent, State Board trying to run it, you got the legislature trying to run it, you got the governor trying to run it with his advisor. You can’t run the schools like that.” 

If passed, it would allow the governor to appoint the superintendent subject to confirmation by joint resolution of the North Carolina General Assembly. 

The bill, called the Education Simplification Amendment, calls for an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment would be put to North Carolina voters in the 2016 North Carolina presidential primary. If passed, it would allow the governor to appoint the superintendent subject to confirmation by joint resolution of the North Carolina General Assembly. 

But while Tillman thinks simplifying oversight of the schools is a good idea, others aren’t so sure.

“I don’t agree with getting rid of that position,” said Democrat Sen. Joyce Waddell. “Because it’s elected now and the people speak. It’s of the people, for the people, and by the people. Not one appointee with a narrow focus.”

Current Superintendent June Atkinson says that she is neutral, in some respects, because she has confidence in the voters.

“I’m going to depend on the citizens of North Carolina to make the right decision,” she said. “Regardless of whether that bill makes it through both houses and becomes a constitutional amendment, it’s still up to the people of North Carolina to make that decision.”

However, she says she knows superintendents in other states who gained their positions in a multitude of ways: election, being appointed by the governor, or even being appointed by the State Board of Education. 

She says she sees advantages of a superintendent being elected or being appointed by the State Board of Education. But she sees at least one big disadvantage to being appointed by the governor. 

“If I were appointed by a governor, then I serve at the pleasure of the governor, and should I have a disagreement with the governor … I would think about 22,000 times before I disagreed with the governor in public,” she said. 

According to the 2014 Book of the States by the Council of State Governments, only one other state has a system where the governor appoints and both houses of the legislature confirm a superintendent: Virginia. Two states — Nevada and Tennessee — have systems where the governor alone makes the call. Eight other states have systems where the governor appoints and only the senate confirms. Most states (17) have board- or commission-appointed superintendents. The second most common practice is a process where the public elects the superintendent (13), as North Carolina does now. 

“We have too many people fighting for too many agendas that don’t mesh.”

Tillman’s bill has been referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate. It could die there, or it could rise for its day before the full Senate. But either way, the filing itself sends a message. 

“The people who understand that we can’t run the school system with about three heads out there know that we got to have that streamlining to really get progress made,” he said. “We have too many people fighting for too many agendas that don’t mesh.” 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.