The NC General Assembly’s committees layer complexity upon complexity in the governing of schools and the making of education policy.
How the 2015-16 legislature goes about its work matters because lawmakers have driven major initiatives over the past four years: a pay raise that favored rookie teachers more than veterans, the high-stakes reading requirement for third graders, and the A to F grades for schools released this week.
Since Terry Sanford set the standard for a governor as an education reformer in the early 1960s, North Carolina has had a line of chief executives – Democrats and Republicans – who sought to fashion themselves as “education governors.” The governor proposed, and the legislature disposed – not always exactly as the governor wanted, but mostly the governor’s proposals and budgets formed the basis for policymaking.
These political realities are among the factors that have weakened Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the natural executive-legislative give-and-take.
Now, Republicans have veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. What’s more, redistricting has given almost all GOP legislators distinctly Republican-red constituencies. These political realities are among the factors that have weakened Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the natural executive-legislative give-and-take.
The making of committee assignments offers the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem a powerful tool to build support for retaining their leadership positions and for guiding the legislative process. So let’s look at how the new Speaker Tim Moore and Senate veteran Phil Berger have arrayed their assets in the field of education.
The Senate combines policymaking for K-12 schools, community colleges, and the University of North Carolina system in a single committee. The Senate Committee on Education/Higher Education has two co-chairs, one vice chair, and 25 members – more than half the 50-member Senate serves on this committee.
Similarly, the Senate has an Education/Higher Education appropriations committee. That committee has only nine members – seven Republicans and two Democrats – and three co-chairs.
In contrast, the House has divided education policymaking into three committees – one for K-12, one for community colleges, and one for universities. Such an arrangement has the advantage of a clearer focus on the needs and issues facing each system of education.
The House Education/K-12 Committee has three co-chairs and two vice chairs. The committee for universities has two co-chairs, no vice chairs, and the community colleges committee has two co-chairs and three vice-chairs. In the appropriations area, however, the House has a single all-inclusive 16-member education committee with 4 co-chairs, four vice chairs.
The trend of multiple chairs and vice chairs is not a new phenomenon; both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to the trend. Nor is it limited to education. The House Agriculture Committee, for example, has four chairs and six vice chairs.
The state has 115 school districts, with their own governing boards, which hire their own system’s superintendents.
Still, the proliferation of chairs and vice chairs can frustrate advocates, parents, and citizen-taxpayers wanting to know whom to hold accountable for education policy and budgeting. While North Carolina, blessedly, does not have the patchwork of small-scale schools districts of other states, its public schools are arrayed in a sprawling system with centralized state governance including many layers of authority and responsibility.
Annual spending on public schools now runs to more than $12 billion – 62 percent from state funds, 26 percent from local budgets, and 12 percent in federal assistance. In addition to the interplay between governor and legislature, and House and Senate within the General Assembly, the state constitution provides for a policymaking Board of Education consisting mostly of appointees of the governor confirmed by the legislature, and an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction. The current board chair is Bill Cobey, a former GOP congressman appointed by the governor, and the superintendent is June Atkinson, a Democrat.
The state has 115 school districts, with their own governing boards, which hire their own system’s superintendents. Board of county commissioners have power to determine the level of local education spending, so they, too, have a role in how well, or not so well, public schools function.
Embedded in North Carolina’s political culture is an aversion to concentrating power. For much of the 1900s, the state restricted governors to one term and denied the governor veto power until 1996. Within the legislature, bills have to run a gauntlet of committees and then win two votes in both the House and Senate to become law.
Certain legislators will surely emerge as first-among-equals in determining education policy and budgeting
From among the multiple co-chairs and vice-chairs, certain legislators will surely emerge as first-among-equals in determining education policy and budgeting – by virtue of their knowledge of the issues and persistent attention to the inner dynamics of lawmaking.
Another factor also regularly comes into play in today’s General Assembly: the power of the party caucus. Republican leaders exert party discipline by calling GOP legislators into a caucus – not a public meeting as are committee meetings – to work out differences and develop legislation on which they expect all their members to vote “aye.” And sometime this summer, when the big budgetary choices have to be made, no doubt Speaker Moore and President Pro Tem Berger will become the more powerful decision makers in the end than all those co-chairs and vice-chairs they appointed.