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House bill would hand control of the State Board of Education to state superintendent

Rep. Hugh Blackwell (foreground) speaks at a House committee meeting in January.

This story has been updated to include comments from Jen Mangrum, the Democratic candidate in the 2020 race for state superintendent.

A House bill filed last week would give the state Superintendent of Public Instruction control of the State Board of Education.

House Bill 1173 was filed by Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican. It would need lawmakers’ approval to be placed on the November ballot for voter approval or rejection.

Blackwell could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

He has filed similar legislation in the past to expand the powers of the superintendent, but it did not win lawmakers’ support.

In January, here’s how Blackwell explained his support for a State Board led by the state superintendent during a House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future:

“In that way, you don’t end up with this sort of double-headed situation that we’ve got currently,” Blackwell said.

The bill also calls for State Board members to be elected by voters.

“The reason I suggest that is we don’t need a system in which a governor with different views controls a majority of the board and the superintendent even if he or she were chair of the State Board is outvoted by people who have different policies,” Blackwell said during the January meeting.

Changing how the state’s system of public education is governed would require a constitutional amendment. In North Carolina, such amendments require the approval of three-fifths of the General Assembly before being placed on the ballot.

North Carolina elects a state superintendent every four years who acts as the secretary and chief administrative office of the State Board of Education. The superintendent administers all “needed rules and regulations” adopted by the State Board through the NC Department of Public Instruction.

Meanwhile, the State Board is led by one of 11 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. It is required by the state constitution to “supervise and administer” the public schools and funding “provided for its support.” The board also makes “rules and regulations” by which the public schools are governed.

Progressive public education advocates rang fire alarms Tuesday after HB 1173 was shared on social media by Jen Mangrum, the Democratic challenger in the 2020 superintendent race won by Republican Catherine Truitt.

“No surprise here,” Jacinta Cheek Wright wrote on Mangrum’s Facebook page. “Power hungry monsters who hate public education gonna be power hungry monsters who hate public education. The solution? Vote a Republican out of office every chance you get.”

Mangrum told Policy Watch that HB 1173 is another Republican attack on public education. She said North Carolinians should be outraged.

“In an effort to destroy public education and ‘government schools’ and replace them with for-profit unaccountable private options, Superintendent [Catherine] Truitt, in a concerted effort with Sen. [Phil] Berger and Rep. Blackwell, are seeking more power over public education,” Mangrum said in a written response to questions about the bill. “They are brazen and unapologetic.”

HB 1173 isn’t about improving public education, Mangrum said.

“At the heart of this move is racism, segregation and a system that doesn’t serve all children,” she said. “Instead, why isn’t Blackwell submitting a bill to fund Leandro and guarantee an excellent public school for every child?”

The long-running Leandro school-funding lawsuit began nearly three decades ago, when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. The districts included those in Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson and Vance counties. 

A two-pronged approach to governing the state’s public schools has sometimes led to conflict between the state superintendent and the state board.

A power grab by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2016 led to a lengthy legal battle that ended with the state Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to the superintendent.

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House bill would hand control of the State Board of Education to state superintendent