Education is the most important function of state government. While there are some exciting and wonderful things going on in education North Carolina’s outcomes are far from what we want and need. A closer look might explain part of the problem.
We have three separate school systems in our state: K-12, community colleges and public universities, each with its own mission and with different and unwieldy governance structures that are not designed to work well together.
Our university system consists of 16 constituent universities, each with its own chancellor and politically-appointed board. While they report and are accountable to the UNC system there are ongoing conflicts and competition among the schools, with the system itself and top leadership. The UNC system has a 32-member Board of Governors appointed by the General Assembly, not because of any education expertise but because of their political connections.
The Board of Governors hires the UNC System President and establishes policy. More confusing, everybody directly and indirectly reports to the 170-member General Assembly. History records our lawmakers have picked winners and losers among campuses and are susceptible to powerful alumni and institutions with special favors like ACC basketball tournament tickets.
Our 58 community colleges aren’t designed better. There is a 21-member statewide board, half of which are selected by the governor, with four by the House and four by the Senate. They hire a president but the state board and administration have, by design, less authority over individual colleges. Greater autonomy is given local presidents and their local boards of 13 members, four appointed by the local board of education, four by the county commissioners and four by the governor. Again, lawmakers hold the purse strings.
Then we have K-12 public schools. We elect the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, but that person is not totally in charge. There is the appointed State Board of Education that sets policy, with 11 members chosen by the governor. Each of the 115 school districts in the state has an elected school board and they appoint a superintendent. And every governor and most legislators fancies themselves education proponents, tinkering with policy, funding and operations. Lawmakers still hold the purse strings.
It would seem sensible that K-12 should be our highest education priority, with community colleges perhaps second and universities third, but until most recently our universities have gotten the most preferential treatment.
Our goal might be to have a seamless education experience but so long as we have the current confusing governance system coupled with so much political interference and competition for funding it is never going to happen.
If you started with a clean slate to design a world-class state education system you would likely want one person, an “Education Czar,” in charge to establish rigorous, clear standards and outcomes. This world-class educator would have regents for the three entities reporting directly to him or her. A board, either elected or appointed, would hold them all accountable and responsible. Somehow you would want to remove politics, with the legislature providing funding only.
While that scenario isn’t likely to happen it is time to give honest consideration to designing a better system. Education is too important not to do our best.
Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of NC SPIN, a weekly panel discussion on state issues that airs on WMYT “MY TV12” at 10 a.m. on Sundays and on WJZY “CW46” at 6:30 a.m. and 11:05 p.m. on Sundays and on WFMY-TV at 5:30 a.m. Sundays.