by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
If you were tasked with organizing a system of publicly funded schools, how would you do it? Where would you start? Who would be “in charge” of this massive enterprise? Who would define its goals and determine whether it is meeting those goals?
Generations of North Carolinians have offered various answers to these fundamental questions. Most have insisted that government officials and bureaucrats should assume the lion’s share of responsibility for maintaining a statewide system of public schools. To this end, elected officials have created elaborate legal and institutional frameworks designed to manage the collection and distribution of tax dollars. This necessitated implementing laws and policies designed to ensure that schools use those dollars for productive educational activities, namely learning.
But such arrangements are messy. Political and legislative processes necessitate tradeoffs, compromises, and a remarkable tolerance for improvisation. Over time, the changes imposed by policymakers invariably produce competing and sometimes contradictory goals. Accountability becomes muddled. Transparency disappears. Complacency becomes the norm.
North Carolina’s system of public schools is no exception. A flowchart describing North Carolina’s system of public-school governance resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. But do not take my word for it. It’s been described as something that “doesn’t work too well” (Gov. Roy Cooper), an “idiotic farce” (columnist Scott Mooneyham), a “hydra-headed monster” (Charlotte Observer editorial board), a “crazy system” (former State Sen. Dennis Winner), a “confusing, poorly engineered and ineffective multiheaded monster” (columnist Tom Campbell), “deplorable” (former congressman and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Bob Etheridge), and akin to the “Riddle of the Sphinx” (News & Observer editorial board). Former Gov. James Hunt had my favorite description. “The big problem in education and state government today,” Hunt remarked in 1993, “is that the buck doesn’t stop anywhere.”
As such, who do we hold accountable for unacceptable student outcomes, unsafe learning environments, or politicized classroom instruction? In our convoluted system, no one is held accountable because there are no clear lines of accountability. Notably, this reality undercuts the claims of school choice opponents that schools of choice are inferior because they lack the “accountability” of traditional public schools.
In our convoluted system, no one is held accountable because there are no clear lines of accountability.
Many North Carolinians assume that the elected superintendent of public instruction is the head of the state’s public schools. After all, the superintendent is the most visible representative of North Carolina’s public schools and manages the Department of Public Instruction. But the North Carolina State Constitution grants the State Board of Education the power to “supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for its support” and “make all needed rules and regulations in relation thereto, subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly.”
The lieutenant governor, state treasurer, and 11 appointed members of the State Board of Education, nominated by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly, are voting members. The state superintendent is not. As the “secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education,” the superintendent acts primarily as a liaison between public schools and members of the State Board. Both are responsible for carrying out laws approved by the General Assembly and occasionally advise the governor.
To recap, the following have a hand in managing North Carolina public schools: 170 members of the General Assembly, Gov. Roy Cooper, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, State Treasurer Dale Folwell, 11 appointed members of the State Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, and hundreds of employees at the Department of Public Instruction.
The state-level positions identified above are the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t mentioned school boards, state courts, federal agencies, county commissioners, school administrators, affiliated government agencies, institutions of higher education, boards of directors, and a multitude of advisory boards, associations, appointees, centers, contractors, consultants, councils, committees, and commissions created by state law, federal statutes, the State Board of Education, or the state superintendent.
Multiple Democratic and Republican proposals to reorganize the governance structure over the last 75 years failed to materialize. Proposals include permitting the governor to appoint the superintendent of public instruction, allowing the State Board of Education to select the superintendent of public instruction, elevating the elected superintendent of public instruction to the chair of the State Board of Education, or electing all members of the State Board of Education and authorizing it to appoint a superintendent of public instruction. A few are politically risky, and all have various pros and cons. None would correct the underlying deficiencies of a centralized system of government and quasi-government overseers.
Dispersed knowledge is the existing system’s Achilles heel. Specifically, how is it possible that the thousands of individuals who manage North Carolina public schools can operate a system that meets the unique educational needs of individual students? It is impossible because those managing the system have only superficial information about the children they serve.
Parental choice largely solves this problem by utilizing parents’ extraordinary insight into their children’s needs, preferences, and tendencies.
Parental choice largely solves this problem by utilizing parents’ extraordinary insight into their children’s needs, preferences, and tendencies. A system that supplies parents the opportunity and resources to use their knowledge as the basis for selecting a school for our children is a much more sensible approach. Accountability would flow through families, transparency would be non-negotiable, and urgency would replace complacency.
Simply put, the buck should stop with parents, and the state’s children would be better for it.