Governance Muddle Leaves N.C. Schools With Many Leaders

Elected Schools Chief Sues Seeking to Clarify Authority

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June Atkinson campaigned last fall for a second term as North Carolina’s schools chief with the goal of improving students’ readiness for college and careers.

Just three months into that term, however, she has a new mission: to help fix the state’s K-12 governance system, clarifying the leadership roles of the governor, the state board of education, and the elected superintendent.

Ms. Atkinson filed a lawsuit today that she hopes will force that conversation. She is asking state courts to rule on the constitutionality of recent appointments and governance changes made by Gov. Beverly E. Perdue, a Democrat who took office in January, and the state’s board of education.

Last month, Gov. Perdue appointed Bill Harrison, a longtime local superintendent, to the state board of education and lobbied the board to elect him as its chairman and hire him as the chief executive officer of the state department of public instruction.

Mr. Harrison’s role as the department’s CEO is one the state constitution gives to the elected state superintendent, Ms. Atkinson, a Democrat, says in the lawsuit filed April 3.

North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, right, is sworn into office by state Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons Goodson during inaugural ceremonies on Jan. 10 in Raleigh.
North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, right, is sworn into office by state Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons Goodson during inaugural ceremonies on Jan. 10 in Raleigh.
—Jim R. Bounds/AP-File

“While I would prefer to work on other issues that have a direct relationship to the quality of education in our state, this needs to be resolved,” Ms. Atkinson said in an interview this week.

North Carolina educators and education advocates hope the ongoing fight over K-12 governance will yield changes to a management system that has been in flux for more than 10 years.

“It’s simply the time for this to be cleared up in one way or another,” said John N. Dornan, the president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based policy and advocacy group.

‘Four-Headed Monster’

North Carolina is one of 14 states that elect their state superintendents of public instruction. While the state constitution gives the elected official control over the education department, the state school board has exerted authority over the department in recent years.

In the 1990s, the board created the position of deputy superintendent and gave that person management power at the department. In 2007, the board hired J.B. Buxton for the job. Although Ms. Atkinson had defeated Mr. Buxton in the 2004 Democratic primary for the state superintendent’s nomination, the two worked well together, Ms. Atkinson said. Mr. Buxton resigned shortly before Mr. Harrison’s appointment as CEO.

But school officials complained that they struggled to get answers to important questions under the previous management arrangement.

The governance structure was a “‘four-headed’ monster,” according to a report by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, with power divided among the board chairman, the elected superintendent, the appointed deputy superintendent, and the governor’s office.

“From time to time, we weren’t sure who to go to for what,” said Mr. Harrison, who was the superintendent of the 54,000-student Cumberland County, N.C., district until his state appointment last month.

Gov. Perdue, who had served on the state board of education when she was lieutenant governor from 2001 until she became governor in January, set out to solve the problem. On March 4, she signed legislation that allows an employee of the education department to be a member of the state board. She then appointed Mr. Harrison to the board, and successfully urged its members both to select him as chairman and to hire him for the newly created position of CEO of the department.

The new structure “does respond to the concerns that were raised,” said Bill McNeal, the executive director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, based in Raleigh. “It does become clear who is in charge.”

The new leadership arrangement is “adding accountability and clear direction to a system that is badly in need of both,” Gov. Perdue said March 9 in her State of the State address.

The way Ms. Perdue exerted her executive and political leadership over the state’s management of schools is emblematic of a long-running shift toward governors’ taking leadership away from state boards and elected superintendents, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education emeritus at Stanford University.

“They have done it by various strategies to erode the power of the chief state school officers,” Mr. Kirst, who has studied education governance for almost 40 years, said of state governors. “The whole thing has been a rising tide of gubernatorial influence over state policymaking.”

In recent years, governors in Maryland and Massachusetts have tried to wrest control from their state superintendents, who are appointed by the state school boards. Separately, Indiana and South Carolina, both of which elect their state schools chiefs, have debated whether to turn those positions into gubernatorial appointments. ("Governors Face Political Hurdles in Seeking Power to Appoint Chiefs," Jan. 23, 2008.)

Although most state constitutions give governors executive powers over state government, many establish separate governance structures for K-12 education, giving oversight to a board of education or an elected official.

The separation of powers over education is important because governors’ tenures are usually limited to eight years, said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va. Any measures a governor’s administration proposes and implements tend to be short-lived, she said, with a change of direction often coming once the next governor takes office.

When a state school board appoints the education chief, the leadership is more likely to stay in place after election cycles, Ms. Welburn said, citing Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island as examples of states with long-serving schools chiefs.

Twenty-three states have such models. In Alaska and Vermont, the governor must approve the board’s choice.

“The working relationships between those boards and their chiefs keeps on going no matter what,” Ms. Welburn said. “You see more progress, more stability, and more strategic thinking.”

In 13 states, the governor appoints the state chief.

Stability and Continuity

Public support for a permanent solution to North Carolina’s governance problems appears to be growing. The Public School Forum of North Carolina released a policy paper in February recommending that the state eliminate the elected superintendency and replace it with a setup in which the state board would appoint the chief of the department of public instruction.

The group modeled its proposal after the governance of the state higher education system, said Mr. Dornan, the forum’s president.

“We’ve had real stability and continuity in our university system’s leadership,” he said. “We decided that these are the things that we need to work toward.”

Under the forum’s proposal, the governor would appoint eight members of the board of education, and a committee of legislative leaders would appoint three others. The state’s elected lieutenant governor and treasurer would continue to be members of the board.

The changes would require the legislature to approve a ballot proposal to amend the state constitution, a step that requires a majority of 60 percent of lawmakers. Voters could approve the changes by a simple majority.

Mr. Harrison, the education department CEO, said he endorses much of the report’s recommendations, but would favor giving the new state superintendent a spot on the state board of education.

“It can bring the day-to-day perspective to the board as they deliberate on the development of policy,” said Mr. Harrison, who had been a local superintendent for 15 years in Cumberland County and two other districts in the state.

Ms. Atkinson, the incumbent superintendent, said she would consider supporting such a change.

“If the people of North Carolina want to have an appointed superintendent,” she said, “I’m perfectly OK with that.”

Vol. 28, Issue 28, Page 8

Published in Print: April 8, 2009, as Governance Muddle Leaves N.C. Schools With Many Leaders
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