Editorials

NC lawmakers’ interference with State Board of Education goes against state Constitution

North Carolina’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson is in the middle of a legal fight between the State Board of Education and the General Assembly.
North Carolina’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson is in the middle of a legal fight between the State Board of Education and the General Assembly.

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time. Having performed their partisan magic on redistricting, HB2, voter suppression and other issues to be settled in courtrooms, Republican leaders have now turned on each other.

The Republican-controlled State Board of Education, angry that much of its power was arbitrarily stolen by GOP lawmakers in order to grant Republican Mark Johnson, the 33-year-old incoming state superintendent of Public Instruction, absolute power over public schools, now is suing in a constitutional challenge to that change. This would all be rather funny except millions of public dollars could be going to lawyers for both sides.

The board is prepared to argue that the powers taken away are constitutionally the board’s, and thus shouldn’t be subject to the partisan whims of the General Assembly. The board also understands that the schools can’t be some kind of political prize. Lawmakers have amply demonstrated they don’t care much for public schools as they now exist, to serve all North Carolinians, so they’re not worried about consolidating all that power on Johnson, who’s a lawyer and a local school board member from Forsyth County but is otherwise short on experience.

Johnson does, however, fit the philosophical bill for conservative lawmakers led by Phil Berger, Senate president pro tem, and House Speaker Tim Moore. Johnson supports expansion of charter schools and the voucher program which dips into taxpayer pockets to give money to parents for private schooling for their children.

The state constitution says clearly that the state board “shall supervise and administer the free public school system,” and that the superintendent is the board’s “secretary and chief administrative officer.”

GOP lawmakers want to do the following: give Johnson virtually all hiring power, remove the board’s approval of contracts, put administrative officers of charter schools under Johnson. The Republican leadership claims Democrats took away power from the superintendent’s office in the mid-1990s for political reasons and they’re just correcting that. In reality, what GOP chiefs are likely up to is to give power to Johnson, believing he will take orders from them. He is, after all, new to state government and thin on administrative experience.

So State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey, a former GOP congressman, is mad enough to take the issue to court, likely setting up a long legal fight. A Wake Superior Court Judge, Don Stephens, issued a temporary restraining order to block the legislature’s move for now.

This is an important confrontation. The State Board may be political, but it’s not in the thick of the partisan fray, and needs to stay above that in order to engage in reasonable, balanced judgments about the direction of public education.

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