A proposed constitutional amendment to make the state superintendent of public instruction the chair of the N.C. State Board of Education will be considered by the N.C. House Thursday June 30, after passing the House Education and House Rules committees on Wednesday. Currently Catherine Truitt, a Republican, is the N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction, elected by voters statewide in 2020.
The amendment, House Bill 1173, would also expand the state board membership to 14 seats that correspond to North Carolina’s number of congressional districts. Unlike the current system, where members are appointed by the governor, members would be elected in their respective districts under the new system.
Additionally, the amendment would require that vacancies filled by the governor must be OK’ed by the legislature. As it stands, the governor’s appointments serve until the term of the person they replaced expires.
“Divided leadership has kept North Carolina back. We’ve not done the job we need to do for our students,” said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, a primary sponsor of H.B. 1173. “If anything has become clear recently, it’s that parents and voters feel like they need to have more of a say in what is happening in our schools. This is designed to give them that voice.”
The debate in committee drew some political bickering, with Democrats concerned the proposed amendment would inject partisanship into the state board.
“I have no idea on God’s green earth why we would make our officials who are supposed to be nonpartisan have to raise money and become partisan because of having to raise the money,” said Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford. “It’s a bad idea just on that very principle.”
Republicans countered that partisanship is already baked into the state board, with members appointed by partisan governors.
“To fool ourselves into thinking that politics is not involved in education is to disregard what a large amount of the news reporting is about,” said Blackwell.
“I hate to use the word political payback, but I think that’s where a lot of these [appointments] come from,” said Rep. Jeff McNeely, R-Iredell. “I think this [amendment] is a novel idea and I’m all for it, because this puts transparency in government, which is what I understand both sides want.”
Currently, 11 members of the state board are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. Eight of those members represent each of the state’s eight educational regions, while three are at-large appointments. The lieutenant governor and the state treasurer are ex-officio members, and the superintendent of public instruction is a non-voting member.
Democrats control the state board, with only three members appointed by a Republican governor, Pat McCrory. Republicans had four members on the state board until a recent resignation, after which Gov. Roy Cooper appointed John Blackburn to fill the vacancy.
Republicans have added strength from Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and State Treasurer Dale Folwell, but still fall short in votes on more partisan issues.
“I was honored to have been elected to serve as North Carolina’s superintendent, and I jumped into the race fully understanding the complexity of the K-12 governance structure as laid out in our state’s constitution,” Truitt commented in an email to Carolina Journal. “However, I think it’s fair to say that for decades, both sides of the aisle have experienced challenges with this structure. Putting a constitutional amendment in the hands of voters is one approach to addressing the difficulties of this governance structure.”
As with any constitutional amendment, H.B. 1173 faces a high hurdle to pass the legislature. It must garner three-fifths majority support in both the N.C. House and Senate before going to the voters, who may approve it with a simple majority vote.