Republicans pitch taking governor’s power from NC education board

Published 11:55 pm Wednesday, June 29, 2022

By Hannah Schoenbaum
Associated Press/Report for America

RALEIGH — North Carolina House Republicans pushed Wednesday for a constitutional amendment that would have voters elect members of the State Board of Education from each congressional district, a move that would erode dramatically the governor’s appointment authority to the panel.

The current rules have 11 members appointed by the governor serving on the board alongside Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and State Treasurer Dale Folwell. The board would expand under the amendment to 14 elected members — in line with North Carolina gaining a congressional seat in 2022 — and add the statewide-elected superintendent of public instruction as chairperson.

The proposed amendment, if approved by the General Assembly in the final days of the legislative session, would appear as a ballot question in the November general election.

“Every voter will have an equal opportunity, rather than a single individual who resides in the governor’s mansion, (to be) able to pick those people for the voters,” said bill sponsor Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican, who chairs the House Education Committee.

The education committee voted 14-7 to recommend the legislation, which also passed the House Rules Committee later Wednesday. The full House won’t consider it until Thursday — a sign that prospects for legislative passage this year could be waning, as the session is likely to end this week.

Because the bill seeks to amend the state constitution, it must pass both chambers with a three-fifths majority of the total legislative body, regardless of how many lawmakers are present. That means the bill would need some bipartisan support to reach voters. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto power does not apply to constitutional amendments.

Some Democrats on the committee argued a system based on congressional districts, rather than the eight current education districts drawn by the General Assembly, could reduce minority representation on the board. They cited past controversies over redistricting and allegations that boundaries were tainted by racial bias.

“Whether it’s partisan or not, the children are children, and they should not be put in the position to not have representation,” Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat, said Wednesday. “Changing to this type of structure is going to put (minority students) at greater risk.”

But bill proponents say the amendment could resolve a conflict of authority between the elected superintendent of public instruction and the appointed board members, while giving parents greater influence over their children’s education.

Changes would take place in early 2024 if voters approved the amendment and apply first to elections that November, weeks before Cooper leaves office due to term limits.

Board member terms would be reduced from eight years to four. Any appointments made by the governor to fill a vacancy would require General Assembly confirmation. Current rules already subject the governor’s board picks to similar legislative approval.

The proposal defies a broader national trend toward governor-appointed education boards.

Governors appoint all or some education board members in 38 states, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. Seven states and the District of Columbia elect their entire board, while three states elect a portion of their members.

Cooper has named Democrats to several board seats since he took office in 2017.

The board’s Democratic majority in 2021 voted to adopt new K-12 social studies standards that encouraged teachers to discuss racism, discrimination and the perspectives of marginalized groups. Republican members called the standards anti-American, anti-capitalist and anti-democratic.

“To suggest that education is a nonpartisan issue is maybe to deceive ourselves,” Blackwell said.