State Politics

NC House says state superintendent should be in charge of schools

Debbie Ellis teaches her second-grade class Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at Swift Creek Elementary School in Raleigh.
Debbie Ellis teaches her second-grade class Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at Swift Creek Elementary School in Raleigh.

The Republican-led state House approved legislation Thursday that would transfer oversight of North Carolina’s public schools to incoming GOP state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson.

The change received less attention than some others proposed as part of House Bill 17, which was filed Wednesday after the Republican-dominated legislature called itself into special session and which removes powers from the governor. But Republicans and Democrats are at odds over that and other education changes in the bill.

The debate is over who should be in charge of K-12 public schools, as well as who should appoint leaders to the UNC-system schools. The proposals come as Democrat Roy Cooper is set to replace Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Johnson will replace Democratic schools superintendent June Atkinson.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, said on the House floor Thursday that it’s the appropriate time to make education reforms now that a new superintendent is taking office.

“This General Assembly and past General Assemblies have demanded results from the superintendents of public instruction,” Dollar said. “This bill strengthens that position considerably. People will look at the new superintendent and probably hold that individual accountable for having additional clarity and authority.”

Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee, said the change “treats the superintendent of public instruction with the authority that we give other heads of state agencies.”

Lewis said the proposal would restore an arrangement that existed until the 1990s, and that the current divisions between the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction are confusing.

But Brian Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, questioned the need to make the change only after a Republican was elected state superintendent.

“What we are doing is wrong,” Fitzsimmons said at Thursday’s House Rules committee meeting. “This is not the way.”

House Bill 17 was approved Thursday night and will go the Senate Education Committee on Friday morning. The bill:

▪ Transfers administration of public schools and the state Department of Public Instruction from the State Board of Education to the state schools superintendent.

▪ Transfers control of the Office of Charter Schools and appointment of the office’s executive director back to the state superintendent. The General Assembly had previously stripped Atkinson of oversight of charter schools and moved it to the education board.

▪ Transfers the power to hire and fire administrative and supervisory personnel in the Department of Public Instruction from the education board to the state superintendent.

▪ Transfers appointment of the new superintendent of the Achievement School District, who will oversee some of the lowest performing public schools, from the education board to the state superintendent.

▪ Removes the governor’s authority to appoint members to the Charter Schools Advisory Board and student advisors and a superintendent advisor to the State Board of Education.

▪ Strips the governor of the ability to appoint members to the UNC system schools’ boards of trustees. Currently, the governor appoints two of the up to 30 board of trustees members at each of the UNC system’s 17 campuses. Under the bill, the House speaker and the Senate leader would each get one more appointment to each board.

The changes to public school administration were opposed by the leaders of the State Board of Education, both Republicans. Chairman Bill Cobey said in a written statement that he and vice-chairman A.L. “Buddy” Collins oppose the bill.

Cobey said the board and the state superintendent have a strong and productive relationship that works well on behalf of North Carolina’s schools.

The bill “raises Constitutional concerns and eliminates checks and balances that are important to the students of North Carolina,” Cobey wrote.

Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui