In the middle of an economic crisis, it doesn't sound like much of a problem. But it is.
North Carolina's public schools have been governed for at least the last four years by a two-headed beast.
I'm not talking about some mythic creature, front part human and hind part ox. I'm talking about the clumsy and wasteful governance structure imposed, in part, by our Constitution. Nobody is really in charge.
The Constitution has not changed. But Gov. Bev Perdue has come up with a practical work-around for its shortcomings. If her plan works, the state has, for the first time in a long time, the opportunity to break a logjam holding up reforms for urgent, persistent problems facing public schools.
For now, the problem of the state Constitution becomes secondary. But it still needs to be fixed.
The Constitution requires that the voters of North Carolina elect a state superintendent of public instruction. We pay that person $123,198, yet the office has no practical authority. The state Board of Education, appointed by the governor, sets policy for schools and the Department of Public Instruction carries it out.
The state superintendent does not report to that board. Nor does the office supervise the 780 employees of the Department of Public Instruction. Until now, a deputy state superintendent has overseen the department, one hired by and reporting directly to the state Board of Education.
Got that? The oversight of arguably the state's most influential resource is in the hands of … no one in particular.
Who's in charge?
That's made it difficult to decide and enforce public school priorities. It has made broad-based changes in school organization and operations tedious. And it has squelched the sort of collaboration between the state's universities, community colleges and public schools that can confront shared, systemic problems such as teacher training, teacher retention and preventing drop-outs.
This is not news. But resolving it means asking voters for permission to change the state's Constitution. The General Assembly has not agreed.
Perdue's work-around is smart. And it's timely. This week she replaced longtime state School Board chairman Howard Lee, who resigned, with Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Bill Harrison, a veteran educator. He's been a classroom teacher, a principal and has led three school systems in North Carolina. He knows his way around the state and its education snarls.
Yet here's the twist: Harrison will also hold a new job the governor created – chief executive officer of the state's public school system. That gives North Carolina a powerful education chief who will both run the state school board and the department of public instruction.
This fix will resolve the lines of authority, for now, for public schools and make it clear the governor is responsible for education.
But the next step is just as important: persuading the legislature to ask voters' permission to amend the Constitution. The state does not need an elected state school superintendent. So long as the role exists, confusion persists. Nor do taxpayers need to spend $123,198 on a figurehead.
This reorganization is a sound, well-thought out way to get around an arcane obstruction to governing the state's public schools in a clear, focused way. But it only goes so far. The next governor would be free to reorganize, too. Oddly, Perdue has not seemed interested in spending political capital on a permanant fix.
Go the full Monty, Bev. Step two is change the Constitution. Lead the charge with lawmakers. Start now and the issue could be on the ballot in 2010.