The state has two offices that focus on education for young children, and it may soon have three as the feud between the state superintendent and the State Board of Education plays out in the legislature.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson is protesting limitations on his ability to hire staff at the state education department. Two House bills that would give Johnson more of his own appointees moved through a House committee Thursday, though a lawmaker warned the legislature could be contributing to the birth of competing camps at the state Department of Public Instruction.
One House bill would give Johnson the power to appoint a new associate superintendent to be in charge of the staff of a new Office of Early Childhood Education.
The Department of Public Instruction, which Johnson supervises, has an existing Office of Early Learning that focuses on pre-kindergarten through third grade. The state Department of Health and Human Services has a Division of Child Development and Early Education.
Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican, said the new office would not add to the education bureaucracy. The office would be responsible for developing a coordinated system of child care and education for children from birth to third grade, he said.
“It enhances the role of early education,” Horn said.
The cost for setting up the new office has not been determined.
June Atkinson, the former state superintendent, said it would be better for work on early childhood education to be consolidated rather than spread over more offices.
“I would see it as a duplication of effort, a point of confusion for the field, and a complexity that is unnecessary,” Atkinson, a Democrat who Johnson defeated in November, said in a phone interview. “You create another position. So who’s in charge?”
Rather than create another office, Johnson could reorganize to have the early childhood office director report to him and work to upgrade the job to associate superintendent, Atkinson said. “He can do that now without any legislation whatsoever,” she said.
Another bill would allow Johnson to use about $600,000 in unspent salary funds to hire five or six people. Their duties were not defined. Johnson could not be reached Thursday.
Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican, said the bill would give Johnson “a small group of people he can use to carry out his duties.”
Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat, said he supported the bill, even though he said it did not get to the source of the conflict at DPI.
The bill adding staff might “create a superintendent’s team within the department that may or may not work well with the rest of the department,” Meyer said.
Johnson is a Republican in his first term, and the state board and the legislature have Republican majorities.
Last year, the legislature revived a decades-old fight over who is in charge at the state education department when it transferred some of the State Board of Education’s powers to Johnson.
The law passed in a post-election special session consolidates hiring powers at the education department with Johnson, removing the board’s authority to approve administrative and supervisory staff appointments. The law also removes the need for board approval of contracts and puts the head of the state charter-school office under Johnson rather than the board.
The education board sued the state, contending the law is unconstitutional. Johnson entered the lawsuit on the side of the state and against the education board. The courts have put the changes on hold while considering the lawsuit. Meantime, the state board continues to have hiring authority.
In an affidavit last week, Johnson said the board did not go along with some of his choices for top jobs at the department.
Early learning agencies
The Office of Early Learning in the state Department of Public Instruction has 90 employees, including about 70 who work in the school districts with blind and hearing-impaired children. Fifteen people are working on the Race to the Top early-learning challenge and overseeing the Kindergarten Early Assessment, a way for kindergarten teachers to know what skills and knowledge children have and how to teach students using that information.
The Division of Child Development and Early Education in the Department of Health and Human Services has 316 full-time employees. The division administers the N.C. Pre-K program, monitors and licenses child-care programs and oversees child-care subsidies.