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The education power struggle

RALEIGH — “I’ve never known a governor that did not run as an education governor.”

Leo Daughtry, the longtime state representative from Johnson County and himself a former gubernatorial candidate, didn’t exactly mean those words as endorsement of governors who wrap themselves in the mantra of public education.

Rather, he was criticizing the tendency to politicize all things public education.

His words, though, bring an obvious question: What exactly should a North Carolina governor run as, if not an education governor?

Half of North Carolina’s state budget goes to public education. For most North Carolinians, the most pervasive contact with state government occurs at the schools and colleges that teach them or their children.

So governors spend a lot of time poking around at the policies that affect how public schools run and how the children in those schools learn.

The performance and reputation of the public schools, public universities and community colleges affect the perceptions of the most well-known and prominent official in state government, the governor.

Cementing this relationship, the state constitution gives the governor more power over public schools in North Carolina than the state schools superintendent. The governor exercises that authority by appointing 11 of the 13 members of the Board of Education. She also appoints the board chair.

The constitution gives the board — not the elected school superintendent — the authority to “administer and supervise” the public schools.

Those words and their meaning have been the subject of more than one power struggle, the most recent between Gov. Beverly Perdue and state schools Superintendent June Atkinson in 2009. Atkinson won a lawsuit that stopped Perdue from vesting more power in the state board chair.

Some House Republicans want to settle the feuding by giving the elected schools superintendent the administrative authority over the public schools and by taking away some of the governor’s appointments to the Board of Education.

No big surprise who would get the appointments no longer granted the governor: legislative leaders.

The proposal would put the issue to voters in 2012, asking them to amend the state constitution.

“Let’s empower the people of this state over the governor,” said Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, one the bill’s primary sponsors.

Yep, and let’s ignore the fact that half of those people probably couldn’t name the schools superintendent, that North Carolina elects more executive officials than all but a few states, that the state just experienced a juicy campaign fundraising scandal involving one of those offices.

Maybe Republicans have forgotten that they once pushed for measures like veto power that gave North Carolina governors more, not less, power.

Right now, they might like to turn back the clock on that veto thing.

Still, North Carolina would be better served by a push in the opposite direction: constitutional measures getting rid of the ridiculous number of executive branch officials who are elected rather than appointed.

If appointees fail, the people will know where to place the blame.

Where else? The governor.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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