Fight For Control Over NC Public Schools Pits Republican Against Republican

May 15, 2017

In June, a panel of North Carolina judges will hear a case that pits Republican against Republican in a power struggle over who should steer the Department of Public Instruction.

The department oversees the day-to-day administration of North Carolina public schools, and is ultimately responsible for the education of 1.5 million students. Two parties are fighting for the helm.

Picture the Department of Public Instruction like a big ship – a really big one – with around 800 employees. At the helm, picture one guy: State Superintendent Mark Johnson. As superintendent, Johnson steers the ship, but only when and where the State Board of Education tells him to go. The board consists of 13 other people. You can picture them standing around Johnson, coming to a consensus and telling him where to turn next. They also choose Johnson’s first mate and most important crew members. That’s kind of how the department works. But now, Johnson wants to be able to pick out his own crew, and set his own course.

"I worked extremely hard for a year and half to win this election," Johnson said in an interview. "I am the duly-elected superintendent of public instruction, and I fully expect to be able to hire the people I need to help me implement that vision."

"I am the duly-elected superintendent of public instruction, and I fully expect to be able to hire the people I need to help me implement that vision." - Mark Johnson

Johnson has sided with the General Assembly in their attempt to give him more power over the department. In December, before Johnson took office, state lawmakers tried to give sole control over staffing decisions to the superintendent, along with control over the department budget and authority over a new charter-school district, cutting out the state board. The State Board of Education opposes the power-shift and is fighting the new law in court. Board chairman Bill Cobey says it’s important that top staffers answer to the superintendent and to board members.

"We like the fact that they’re 'dual-reports' because we have standing committees that these top people work with on policy matters. And we certainly are charged with approving policy," Cobey said in an interview.

The court granted the board a temporary injunction, meaning for now, Johnson still has to wait for board approval before he turns the wheel. And he’s not thrilled about it.

"The state board of education only meets here in Raleigh 1.5 days a month, and consistently there have been some members who aren’t even here for that entire amount of time," Johnson said. "But I’m the person who’s here every week. You know, I’m the person who I have my office, and directors and top deputies who are in this building, they come see me when they need an answer on something."

"It's about who has the authority or who has power to implement these changes, and the Constitution, we believe, is very clear on that point." - Bill Cobey

The friction between Johnson and the board is playing out in the General Assembly, where Senate lawmakers have tentatively stripped the state board of five staffing positions, and given the money to Johnson so he can hire his own staff without board approval.

All parties involved in this squabble are Republican, and they have similar policy goals: They all want improved student outcomes, more charter schools and strict accountability for public schools.

"It’d be hard for me to even note a policy difference," Cobey said. "But it’s about who has the authority or who has power to implement these changes, and the Constitution we believe, is very clear on that point."

Cobey said the state Constitution makes the board of education the highest authority on implementing and administering a free public education, not the state superintendent.

Michael Gerhardt is a constitutional law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He said the state Constitution is "relatively clear" on the responsibilities of the superintendent.

"It's probably an uphill battle for the General Assembly on this," he said.

Sec. 4.  State Board of Education.

[...]

(2)        Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Superintendent of Public Instruction shall be the secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education.

Sec. 5.  Powers and duties of Board.

The State Board of Education shall supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for its support, except the funds mentioned in Section 7 of this Article, and shall make all needed rules and regulations in relation thereto, subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly.

It may be a long shot, but Johnson and state lawmakers show no signs of giving up. Johnson said the need for change in department is urgent, and the board’s lengthy deliberations are getting in the way. But, despite their differences both Johnson and Cobey say they’re working well together to continue sailing the ship forward.