The latest major court ruling stemming from the General Assembly’s infamous 2016 “power grab”1came on Friday, as the N.C. Supreme Court settled a battle between the state Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education over direct control of the public school system.
Both the state superintendent and the Board of Education declared victory after the decision. But the ruling is very clearly in favor of the General Assembly and the elected superintendent.
As it turns out, sometimes even a power grab results in clearer public policy.
What was the lawsuit about?
Let’s start all the way at the beginning: the state constitution. It sets up two distinct bodies tasked with public education.
The State Board of Education is directed to “supervise and administer the free public school system.” The Superintendent of Public Instruction, elected statewide every four years, is to “be the secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education.”
There’s not a whole lot of direction as to how this is to work in practice. That’s mostly been left to the General Assembly, and over the years the pendulum of duties has swung back and forth.
Once it became clear that Cooper would be the new governor, with the right to appoint State Board of Education members, the state legislature decided to tweak the responsibilities of the board and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, 34-year-old Republican Mark Johnson.
Some of the changes are more technical. Instead of the State Board of Education being in charge of establishing “policy,” it became responsible for “all needed rules and regulations” for North Carolina’s public schools.
The more substantive changes come to the superintendent role. Previously, the job was to run the day-to-day operations of the public school infrastructure “subject to the direction, control, and approval of the State Board.” That phrasing was removed in several places.
While the board remains the policymaking body, the superintendent now has clear responsibility for running the department.
The law previously read like this:
“To manage all those matters relating to the supervision and administration of the public school system that the State Board delegates to the Superintendent of Public
The 2016 bill changed that paragraph to this:
“To have under his or her direction and control, all matters relating to the direct supervision and administration of the public school system.”
The new law also puts responsibility for spending money, entering into contracts and hiring personnel under the purview of the superintendent.
The State Board of Education sued to block implementation of the law, saying that that it should take a constitutional amendment, not a law, to change the responsibilities of the board in this way.
What did the ruling say?
In a 33-page ruling, the N.C. Supreme Court2 ruled that the General Assembly was within its rights to do this.
The majority opinion says that the State Board of Education still has its constitutional duty to “generally supervise and administer the public school system,” and even still has oversight of the superintendent by being able to pass regulations governing his job.
The General Assembly’s changes were deemed to be a clarification of what it means to be the chief administrative officer of the board rather than a major overhaul.
This honestly makes more sense.
The setup of the Board of Education and the elected superintendent has always been a weird one.
The governor, secretary of state, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture and other statewide elected officials have clear responsibility for their departments and considerable executive control.
Why should the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction be so different? Why should a duly elected official be hamstrung by a board of political appointees?
Boards are also, by their nature, not super great at being CEO of a department. The State Board of Education meets for about 18 days per year. In North Carolina’s public school districts, an elected board hires a professional superintendent. That setup would make sense for the statewide department — but that’s not what the constitution dictates. Under the framework our state has, House Bill 17 actually created a more rational system.
This isn’t to say the General Assembly’s motives were pure. If the roles were reversed — if Gov. McCrory had won another term and a Democrat held the state superintendent post — I’m certain this wouldn’t have happened.
But I guess you just have to take good governmental practice when you can get it.
Cover photo shows the Justice Building in downtown Raleigh, home of the N.C. Supreme Court. Photo by the North Carolina Judicial Branch via Facebook.