New NC House committee looks to reinvent education. Should the State Superintendent lead the State Board of Ed?

By: - January 25, 2022 6:36 am
Rep. Hugh Blackwell (foreground) Speaks at Monday’s committee meeting.

If Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Republican from Burke County, was inventing North Carolina’s K-12 system of education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction would lead the State Board of Education.

On Monday, Blackwell told members of the new House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future, that he once drafted legislation, which didn’t win support, to make the state superintendent head of the State Board.

“In that way, you don’t end up with this sort of double-headed situation that we’ve got currently,” said Blackwell, one of the committee’s co-chairs.

The nine-member committee was created by House Speaker Tim Moore, (R-Cleveland). It is led by Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Gaston County. The committee has been asked to take up to two-years to look at ways to reinvent the state’s K-12 schools to better meet the needs of the state’s 1.5 million school children.

The two-pronged approach to governing the state’s public schools has sometimes led to conflict between the state superintendent and the state board.

A power grab by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2016 led to a lengthy legal battle that ended with the state Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to the superintendent.

Rep. John Torbett

North Carolina elects a state superintendent every four years who acts as the secretary and chief administrative office of the State Board of Education. The superintendent administers all “needed rules and regulations” adopted by the State Board through the NC Department of Public Instruction.

Meanwhile, the State Board is led by one of 11 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. It is required by the state constitution to “supervise and administer” the public schools and funding “provided for its support.” The board also makes “rules and regulations” by which the public schools are governed.

Blackwell also wants State Board members to be elected by voters.

“The reason I suggest that is we don’t need a system in which a governor with different views controls a majority of the board and the superintendent even if he or she were chair of the State Board is outvoted by people who have different policies,” Blackwell said.

He said state board members could be elected from districts so that voters can decide whether the board leadership is being effective in ways that “voters and parents felt that it should be.”

The committee must also take a look at how technology can be used to improve educational outcomes and the way leaders are chosen to guide K-12 education, Blackwell said.

“I think that impacts whatever you want done,” Blackwell said. “If you don’t have the right leaders with vision and skills to lead others in place, then most of the great ideas may not end up being put into place effectively.”

Before the panel’s meeting, Torbett sent committee members an email message asking them to think about what they would include in a new system of education that’s designed to prepare North Carolina’s children for the future.

Torbett shared one thought.

“I’ve often wondered, for example, off the top of my head, because you’re a certain age, why are you in a certain grade when that has absolutely nothing to do with your ability to learn, the speed of your ability to learn or anything just because you’re a certain age.”

He also wondered if teachers are asked to do too much in the classroom.

“Is it time to, perhaps, separate and hire additional people for schools to do the things teachers are now obligated to do to allow them to focus back on teaching?” Torbett asked.

The committee’s focus will include:

  • Requirements of the standard course of study.
  • Outcomes of the standard course of study, including appropriate metrics.
  • Funding and outcomes of current programs, including partnerships with nonprofits, that support the standards an outcomes of a sound basic education.
  • Any other issues deemed relevant by the chair to the charge of the committee.

Finding ways to encourage more parental involvement, increase literacy, teach financial literacy and better prepare teachers were among the ideas committee members shared for strengthening K-12 education.

Rep. David Willis, a Republican from Union County, said it’s important to prepare students for trades jobs.

“Not every kid is going to be college bound, not every kid is going to law school,” Willis said. “At the same time, some of them are going to be diesel mechanics, and some of them are going to be other tradesmen.”

Jeanette Doran, president of the NC Institute for Constitutional Law, gave the committee an overview of the constitutional and statutory provisions for public education in North Carolina.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt is scheduled to make a presentation to committee when it meets Feb. 7.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.