After clearing disruptive protestors from the galleries in the late afternoon Thursday, members of the state House approved on a 70-36 vote legislation that not only transfers oversight of public education in North Carolina to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction but also significantly limits the governor’s powers. As this article is being posted the Senate is deliberating HB 17 on the floor.
HB 17, authored by Reps. David Lewis (R-Harnett), Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg), D. Craig Horn (R-Union) and Stephen Ross (R-Alamance), enhances the powers of the Office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, largely at the expense of the State Board of Education.
HB 17 grants the superintendent control over administrative and supervisory personnel in the Department of Public Instruction, a function previously under the control of the State Board of Education. The legislation also transfers various managerial and administrative support functions from the State Board of Education to the Superintendent’s Office.
Under the new legislation, the superintendent of public instruction is responsible for “administering all needed rules and regulations established by the State Board of Education.” Such changes are meant to remedy longstanding confusion over the superintendent’s role.
The legislation is also intended to reduce the influence of the State Board of Education on charter schools. HB 17 eliminates the governor’s three appointments from the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board, replacing them instead with four appointments by the General Assembly. The bill also requires that the executive director of the Office of Charter Schools be confirmed by the superintendent of public instruction and serve at the superintendent’s pleasure, powers previously held by the State Board of Education
HB 17 also significantly limits the governor’s appointment powers in other ways. HB 17 eliminates the governor’s appointments to the UNC Board of Governors and UNC Board of Trustees and – yes again –transfers that appointment authority to the General Assembly. Under the legislation, anyone appointed by the governor to lead state departments will now be subject to the “advice and consent” of the state Senate. The legislation also reduces the number of exempt positions the governor can appoint from 1,500 to 300. And the number of exempt policymaking positions in the State Board of Education is limited to 70, or 2 percent of the total number of full-time positions in the department, whichever is greater.
It’s not difficult to understand what’s behind all the maneuvering. Republicans are trying to limit the power and reach of incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and also trying to boost the power of new State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, a Republican.
Republicans should understand, however, the overheated environment in which they are operating. David Lewis, the bill’s major sponsor, says the measure simply reaffirms the legislature’s traditional authority over entities the legislature creates. The power to appoint is a power that derives from that authority. Lewis believes it’s a power that can be delegated or rescinded at any time. It’s an argument that may be true. However, the failure by Republicans to make a compelling argument leaves their actions looking like one big power grab.
You can bet Democrats will mount a legal challenge to any legislation that changes the powers of the State Board of Education or the powers of the Governor’s Office. Gov.-elect Roy Cooper has already mentioned the threat of a suit. Recent constitutional challenges by Republicans in the education area have not gone well – even with a Republican majority on the State Supreme Court. And the November 8 elections flipped the balance of power on the court in favor of Democrats.
Republicans may be giddy over the opportunity to gain greater control over policymaking machinery while also limiting the reach of those who oppose them. Those goals are goals I share. The question however, is how you get there. Republicans have failed to sell the public on why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Majorities don’t last forever. Control of the legislature will eventually shift. Will Republicans be happy with the changes they made? Or will those changes come back to haunt them?