Opinion: K-12 Update

Week of December 11, 2006

When it comes to public education, where does the proverbial buck stop? Who, after all, is the ultimate answer man when schools fail or succeed? Such questions seem logical and clear. Yet, as with much of our government K-12 education system, complexity often trumps clarity.

For starters, public education lacks a straightforward chain of command. In our state, at the least, education leadership is a hydra-headed entity – it’s pretty crowded at the top. This can lead to all manner of turf wars, as competing agencies joust for influence. Jason Bennett, policy analyst at the William Pope Civitas Institute recently wrote a brief review detailing the still-unresolved tensions between the State Board of Education and the State Superintendent.

Even by itself, though, the State Board of Education is a sizable group, made up of the Lieutenant Governor, the State Treasurer, and 11 members appointed to 8-year terms by the Governor. Eight of the Governor’s appointees represent the state’s 8 education districts, while the remaining 3 come from the state at-large.

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction is elected every 4 years and serves as secretary and chief administrative officer of the Board. June Atkinson won the last election in 2004, but only after prevailing in an extremely
tight race against Bill Fletcher that was ultimately decided by the General Assembly in August, 2005.

The Deputy Superintendent, a staff member employed by the State Board, is given day-to-day authority to run the agency. Until her recent resignation, Janice Davis served as North Carolina’s Deputy Superintendent.

Both the State Board of Education and the State Superintendent control pieces of the North Carolina’s educational agency, yet the Governor and General Assembly also provide education leadership. In addition to appointing members to the State Board of Education, the Governor wields tremendous influence over state education spending, adding and subtracting programs based upon his choice of funding initiatives.

Lastly, our state’s testing and accountability program still in use today. In 1996, the General Assembly passed legislation enacting charter schools and opening the aperture of educational freedom ever so slightly.

The truth is, there’s no easy answer to the question of who runs the show: No one’s in charge, and everyone’s in charge, all at the same time. And this is just at the state level. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the layers of bureaucracy at the federal and local levels. But take heart. There’s a limit to how much havoc the bureaucracy can wreak. As politician Eugene McCarthy once said, “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.” Besides, a bureaucracy is no match for parents committed to the fight for educational excellence and freedom. In the final analysis, parents, the buck stops with you.

To learn about education governance, as well as the latest education news, visit the Alliance online at www.nceducationalliance.org. Check out the “Headlines” section of our home page, updated daily with articles from every major newspaper in the state. At the Alliance, we are committed to keeping you informed and empowered as we join together to improve education for the children of North Carolina.