Gov. Roy Cooper wasn’t the only target of N.C. Republicans during their special session power binge last month. The state’s public schools also found themselves weakened by a quieter, but just as noteworthy, blow.
Between finding new ways to hamstring the incoming governor, Republicans passed HB17, which transferred much of the state’s authority over public schools from the State Board of Education to the state superintendent of Public Instruction. That position is now held by a Republican, Mark Johnson, who defeated longtime incumbent and Democrat June Atkinson in November.
Johnson, a former teacher and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board member, is a fan of charter school expansion. He also supports an N.C. voucher program that offers families taxpayer money for private schools. Republican lawmakers prefer charters and vouchers as the primary means of making schools better.
Now, the people in charge of those public schools are fighting back. The Republican-led State Board of Education filed suit against HB17 last week, and Superior Court judge Donald Stephens temporarily blocked the law from taking effect this month. Stephens will hold a hearing Friday to determine whether to keep the law on hold until a three-judge Superior Court panel can wrestle with HB17’s legality.
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We think the N.C. Constitution offers a clear answer.
Article IX of that document declares that the state board “shall supervise and administer the free public school system.” It also says the state superintendent is the “secretary and chief administrative officer of the board.” That means the superintendent does the board’s bidding.
HB17, however, gives the superintendent control of “all” matters related to the direct supervision and administration of the public school system. That includes more hiring power and, importantly, overseeing the state office of charter schools and the state’s new Achievement School District. The law also eliminates statutory language that declares the state superintendent is “subject to the direction, control and approval” of the state board.
Special Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar, arguing on behalf of the legislature, told Stephens last week that according to the Constitution, the school board’s powers are “subject to the laws of the General Assembly.”
But on public schools, the Constitution is clear: The General Assembly crafts laws involving education policy. The state school board, not the superintendent, is in charge of making and administering rules and regulations within those laws.
We hope and expect the courts to strike most, if not all, of HB17. It would be far from the first time that judges have had to remind Republicans lawmakers of the limits of their power.