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Demystify education boards

RALEIGH — The single-largest expenditure of state taxpayers funds in North Carolina is public education. We spend billions of dollars on public schools, community colleges, and universities. So why aren’t we talking more about how weird and chaotic North Carolina’s system of education governance is?
Public schools, community colleges, and the University of North Carolina system have their own governance boards. But these boards differ substantially in design and operation. Consider the details:

• The State Board of Education has 13 voting members. They include 11 members appointed by the governor to eight-year terms, plus the elected lieutenant governor (soon to be Republican Dan Forest) and state treasurer (currently Democrat Janet Cowell) as ex-officio members. The elected state superintendent of public instruction, currently Democrat June Atkinson, serves as secretary of the state board.
Eight of the 11 members appointed by the governor represent specific regions of the state, while three are at-large members, including the appointed chairman. The appointive eight-year terms are staggered so that two to three slots open up every two years.

• The State Board of Community Colleges has 21 members. They include 10 members appointed by the governor, four members selected by the North Carolina House, and four members selected by the North Carolina Senate, plus the lieutenant governor, state treasurer, and president of the community college system’s student government association president. Those last three serve as ex-officio members.
The members selected by the governor and legislature serve six-year terms, staggered so that roughly a third come up for reelection every two years. The governor’s 10 appointments must include one member from each of state’s six community college regions, plus four at-large members. Each of the system’s 58 campuses has its own board of trustees with members appointed by the governor, local school boards and county commissions.

• The UNC Board of Governors has 32 voting members. They include 16 members elected by the House and 16 members elected by the Senate. These members serve four-year terms, staggered in such a way that the House and Senate each get to elect eight new members to the UNC board every two years. In addition to these voting members, the UNC system’s student government association president serves as a non-voting member, as do some emeritus members (e.g., former state governors and UNC board chairs). Each of the UNC system’s main campuses also has its own board of 12 voting trustees (eight selected by the UNC Board of Governors, four by the governor) plus a student-body president as non-voting member.

So the General Assembly has essentially no role in controlling the State Board of Education, the governor has essentially no role in controlling the UNC Board of Governors, and the two branches share the role of controlling the State Board of Community Colleges.
While the UNC and community college boards hire the CEOs of their respective systems, the head of the Department of Public Instruction, the state superintendent, is independently elected.
Each of the three boards has a different term length. While the UNC board’s four-year terms provide for more turnover, allowing changes in political power in Raleigh to have a timely effect on university governance, the six- and eight-year terms for the community college and public school boards has the potential to create significant conflict between current elected officials and appointees left over from previous administrations or legislatures.
Now, I know enough North Carolina history to recognize that these oddities are not accidental. The legislature have long relished its control of the UNC system – this was even a big political issue in the 1870s, believe it or not – while governors have sparred with state superintendents and lawmakers over who should be responsible for forming and carrying out public-school policies.
But here we are, well into the 21st century, with a set of governance policies for North Carolina education that serve mostly to confuse the public and confound effective management. Let’s do something about it.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

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