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N.C. Poised To Slash Size, Power of State Education Agency

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Raleigh, N.C.

Here, in the city that serves as the nexus of North Carolina politics, people often compare the powers that share control of the state schools to Hydra, the multiheaded monster slain by Hercules in Greek legend.

North Carolina's education system also has multiple heads, they explain: the governor, the legislature, the state board of education, and the state schools superintendent.

Soon, however, one of those heads may roll.

Lawmakers here are on the verge of passing legislation that would strip the state superintendent, Bob Etheridge, of nearly every ounce of power he possesses. Another bill, meanwhile, would amputate parts of the agency that Mr. Etheridge runs, reducing its size by as much as half.

Republicans fired the first shot in this policymaking revolution during last fall's election campaign, but Democrats--including Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.--have joined the call to arms.

Reshuffling key policymakers will not improve schools, critics of the plans argue. But those engineering the changes argue that this is a rare chance to play Hercules, tame all of Hydra's heads, and turn more power over to the schools themselves.

Many states are wrestling with proposals for basic changes in their governance systems for public education, according to a national survey. (See related story.)

Rivals Struggle

(See education-policymaking structure for decades. The state superintendent was made an elected official in 1868, but a 1943 rewrite of the state constitution created a rival power in a board of education largely appointed by the governor.

Over the years, the two have battled over both turf and policy. In 1991, for example, the state board and Mr. Etheridge sued each other in a dispute over the board's use of agency money to pay support-staff members.

"It doesn't seem to matter who's on the board or who's the superintendent," said Jay M. Robinson, the board's chairman, who was appointed by Governor Hunt last year. "It's still a struggle."

Before the legislative session opened this year, it was obvious that Mr. Etheridge would have a fight on his hands.

In November, Republicans captured control of the House for the first time in a century. G.O.P. lawmakers have long called the seven-story, red-granite state education building the "pink palace," and Republican candidates for the legislature last fall made cutting the department down to size a central plank in their "Contract With North Carolina."

Now, downsizing legislation backed by Democrats as well as the Republican leadership appears headed for passage. It would order the state school board to design a reorganization plan that would cut up to half of the agency's 783 employees.

Lawmakers also are expected to approve a bill that would turn over to the state board the superintendent's control of every element of schools, from statewide assessments to driver's education.

The end result could make Mr. Etheridge and his successors little more than elected stenographers for the board, said John Sanders, a constitutional scholar formerly at the University of North Carolina.

The state could "have a superintendent who has an office, who has a title, and who gets paid a salary, but who has nothing whatsoever to do with the schools," Mr. Sanders said.

Carolyn B. Russell, the House speaker pro tem, said such a radical reallocation of power is needed to make at least one of Hydra's heads accountable.

"Truly, I do not know where the buck stops," she said.

Consolidating Power

If both bills clear the legislature, most observers here agree that the buck will stop with the state board--which lawmakers want to empower because its current membership is committed to passing that power along to school districts.

Its members include both Republicans and Democrats, but they have proved they can bury politics for the sake of schools, supporters say. And Mr. Robinson, a former superintendent of schools in Cabarrus County and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area, is a popular and respected educator in the state.

Still, not everyone is comfortable with giving such authority to unelected officials.

"Apparently, [Mr. Robinson is] going to get the power of an elected official without running," said state Rep. Anne C. Barnes, a Democratic member of the House education committee and its former chairwoman.

"That's a sweet deal; I'd take it in a heartbeat," she said.

But this consolidation of power in the board has the blessing of the Governor, said G. Thomas Houlihan, Mr. Hunt's senior education adviser. The Republican cries for downsizing have presented a rare opportunity for the state to sharpen its vision for schools, he argued.

"We historically have operated in North Carolina without a clear focus and mission about the role of state government in education," he said. "It's a broader issue than governance: What should education in North Carolina be doing?"

Both Mr. Robinson and Mr. Houlihan said that the state's new focus will be on basic skills--reading, writing, mathematics, and other instruction to prepare graduates for jobs.

Ultimately, the board will push power away from Raleigh, Mr. Robinson said, and free districts from micromanagement by the state if their students meet high standards in the basic skills.

"If you have a good principal, a good superintendent, and a good local board," he said, "I know this is a better way to go."

'Rejection, Repudiation'

Officials at the education department are not convinced.

"There are a lot of things," Superintendent Etheridge said, "that can be done cheaper in a centralized way."

Since 1989, Mr. Etheridge said, he has cut more than 300 positions from his payroll. The calls for further reductions are driven in North Carolina and across the nation by the enemies of public schools, he said.

"If this keeps up," he warned, "it may be another nail in the coffin of public education."

Morale among his staff "is in the basement," Mr. Etheridge said

"In education," he said, "We used to talk about the three R's--writing, reading, and arithmetic. But now, it's 'rejection, repudiation, and repeal."'

The fate of the drive to decentralize lies with the legislature. It must approve the state board's reorganization plan for the department, and lawmakers may balk when asked to repeal the laws that keep them in control of the state money that flows to schools.

Said Mr. Robinson: "It's going to be a real test in a state where we've been very centralized to see if we're willing to turn loose or not."

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