On Friday, a three-judge Superior Court panel sided with Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson in a lawsuit brought by the N.C. State Board of Education over a 2016 General Assembly statute that transferred certain powers from the State Board to the State Superintendent. The judges delayed Implementation and enforcement of the statute for 60 days to allow the State Board to file an appeal.
The case centers on the issue of North Carolina’s murky system of education governance. On the one hand, voters elect a Superintendent of Public Instruction every four years and reasonably assume that the holder of that office is “in charge” of public schools. On the other hand, the N.C. Constitution states that the State Board of Education, a group of 11 citizens appointed by the governor for 8-year terms, “shall supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for its support.”
The three-judge panel concluded that the legislative statute did not diminish the power of the State Board to fulfill their constitutional mandate. Instead, the judges argued that the statutory provisions “simply shift the details of day-to-day operations [of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction], such as hiring authority, from the State Board to the Superintendent,” which “fall well within the constitutional authority of the General Assembly…”
It is important to note that it is a narrow ruling, that is, only addresses the changes made by the statute. The court did not attempt to delineate the powers of the State Board and Superintendent of Public Instruction generally. Frankly, I would be alarmed if the judges tried to do so. Perhaps they recognize that an amendment to the state constitution is likely the only way to finally resolve the issue for good. Even then, there is no guarantee that voters would approve the change, particularly if the proposed amendment made the State Superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position.
If the State Board of Education chooses to forgo an appeal, then Johnson must focus on two critical tasks – filling key positions in the Department of Public Instruction and articulating a compelling vision for public education in North Carolina. While he can accomplish the former without the assistance of the State Board, he should collaborate with them to conceptualize the latter.