News, Special Session

After governor signs controversial bill, State Board of Education chair condemns new law as “unconstitutional”

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

Minutes after Gov. Pat McCrory on Monday signed a controversial bill mandating stiff new limits on the powers of Gov.-elect Roy Cooper and the State Board of Education—a panel composed of gubernatorial appointees—state board Chairman Bill Cobey vowed his board would meet with their attorneys to consider their response.

“I don’t want to pass judgment on the governor,” said Cobey, a Republican appointee of McCrory. “But it’s still unconstitutional in my opinion.”

Cobey is one of at least two Republican appointees on the state’s leading public school board to take issue with the GOP-led House Bill 17, which not only impacts Cooper but wrests powers from the State Board of Education and hands them over to incoming N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.

The sweeping legislation was filed and speedily approved with little public vetting in a surprise special session of the legislature last week, called shortly after lawmakers wrapped work on a hurricane relief bill.

Johnson, a Winston-Salem Republican, was a surprise victor over longtime Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson on Election Day.

Cobey said Monday night that he believes “most” of the law’s provisions relating to public schools are unconstitutional. And while he did not guarantee legal action, the state board is slated to hold a special session Tuesday morning to weigh their answer.

Cobey’s board is predominantly Republican, but drew the ire of some conservative school choice backers when they voted down a spate of new charter applications in August they deemed as lacking.

Charters are publicly-funded schools granted greater flexibility in staffing and curriculum than their traditional school counterparts.

Among the provisions of the new law, management of the state’s Office of Charter Schools would be shuttled from the State Board of Education to Johnson. The law will also prohibit state board members from having any of its sitting members on the Charter School Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the state board on charter applications.

The charter school board, for now, includes state board member Becky Taylor, who was among the board members who voted against a few charter applications in August.

On Thursday night, Cobey continued to defend that vote, arguing that his board was simply “doing our job.”

“There are some people out there who think we should approve everything that comes to us,” said Cobey. “But there are a lot of tax dollars tied up in this. I personally can’t have that on my conscience.”

Check back with Policy Watch Tuesday for updates on this pivotal state board meeting.

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