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Perspective | Another long-ballot election risky for education

North Carolina is a long-ballot state. Every fourth year, the state imposes on its voters the heavy duty of deciding elections for a lengthy list of federal, state, and local public offices.

Now, the General Assembly considers whether to add to that list by converting most of the seats on the State Board of Education from appointive to elective offices. Doing so would place another layer of complexity onto the already complicated governance of public schools.

House Bill 17 proposes a constitutional amendment to reconfigure the state board and the role of the superintendent of public instruction. In its political dimension, the proposed amendment fits into a stream of measures by which the Republican legislative majority attempts to diminish the powers of the governor’s office, now held by Democrat Roy Cooper. But the bill also requires attention to the uncertainties and risks it holds for education policy making beyond today’s political divide.

Currently, the board consists of 11 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. Gubernatorial appointees serve for eight years; thus, some remain on the board into the term of the next governor. The lieutenant governor and state treasurer serve on the education board by virtue of their offices. The superintendent, a statewide elected official, heads the Department of Public Instruction and is the board’s secretary and administrative officer.

The proposed constitutional amendment would install the superintendent as chair of the state board and retain seats for the treasurer and lieutenant governor. The bill further provides for the election of as many education board members as the state has representatives in the U.S. House — currently 14.

If approved by the legislature, the amendment would be submitted to a statewide referendum during the 2024 elections. If approved by a majority of voters, it would go into effect in 2026, under implementation laws to be adopted by the legislature.

The bill’s language seems to set the stage for the election of 14 members, not at-large statewide, but perhaps in the districts designed for U.S. House seats. The 2022 congressional elections produced a delegation of seven Republicans and seven Democrats. Another round of congressional redistricting, controlled by the Republican legislative majority, is anticipated before 2024 — possibly defining districts for members of the state education board as well as the U.S. House.

The upshot would be another set of elections in a state with a long-ballot history. In presidential election years, North Carolina conducts elections for governor, lieutenant governor, eight offices in the Council of State, all 170 seats in the General Assembly, and Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. If elections for the education board were added, the candidates would appear down the very long ballot.

It is a paradox of democracy that too many elections can burden democratic decision-making. How many elections are too many or too few? Well, that’s a matter of political judgments, many of which were made decades ago that linger on. Consider, for example, that the insurance commissioner is elected, while the secretary of health and human services, who oversees a huge and critical enterprise, is appointed by the governor; or that the agriculture commissioner is elected, while the natural resources secretary is appointed by the governor.

North Carolina asks much of its voters to decide down-ballot races involving candidates about which they know little and hear little amid the hurly-burly of campaigns for president and governor. What’s more, if the legislature adopts partisan education board races, that would lead potentially to intra-party contests in primaries. The prospect of year-long financing and traveling to campaign across a congressional district would surely inhibit public spirited citizens well-qualified for education policy making from seeking a seat on the state board.

In its 50-state comparison of K-12 governance, the Education Commission of the States defines four “models,” but none dominant, for mixing appointments and elections to education authorities across the country. North Carolina joins eight other states with an elected chief state school officer and an appointed board. Each state’s system, says the ECS, “is rooted in and has evolved based on its goals, political context, culture and history.”

Over North Carolina’s two-century history of funding and governing its common schools, a complex, often frustrating, structure has evolved. At the state level, the governor, the legislature, the state board, and the superintendent have intertwined roles and rivalries. State courts have defined the constitutional right to education. At the county level, elected boards of education hire superintendents, while elected commissioners appropriate local funding.

As the ECS analysis suggests, no ideal or consensus system exists among the states.  It requires hard work and leadership to govern public education across institutional and political lines. Having a state education board with members elected from large districts would impose an additional long-ballot burden on voters without offering an assurance of public school governance more accountable and more effective for North Carolina’s students.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.