Who's In Charge of NC's Public Education?

Today's N&O frontpage features an issue that I've been meaning to write about for a while... The wacky way North Carolina manages our public education system.

In our strange system, responsibility for education is distributed across at least seven levels. The titular head of our education system, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, has the least power of anyone.

The North Carolina Public School Forum lists this as one of the top 10 education issues of 2009. It's one of those complex issues that has never really been addressed because none of the power brokers have a vested interest in making it better. You can guess at who might suffer from their inaction.

Here's my take on how it works, and what we can change.

The legislature paid a consultant $169,900 to write a report that can be summed up in a one page handout. In fact, someone gave me just that handout a few years ago. I've reproduced it here and updated it a bit. (I'd credit the original author, but I don't know who it is.)


115 Local School Boards
Authorized by statute (not the Constitution).
Members elected by the people.
Manage local school systems.
Select and employ system superintendent
Dependent on county government for school funding beyond state minimum per pupil expenditures.
No authority to levy taxes.
Independent of State Board of Education.

Local District Superintendents
Professional school managers employed by elected boards with varying levels of education expertise and no capacity to fund schools.

100 County Governments
Fund capital needs in their local discretion, as local resources permit.
Pay for about one-fourth of program operations.
No authority to manage schools they pay for.
No control over unfunded state requirements the county must pay for.
Limited mainly to property taxes for school funding.

State Board of Public Education
Sets some statewide policies.
Attempts to administer policies developed by the legislature.
Attempts to support agenda of the Governor (who appoints most members).
Has little direct authority over local systems.
Has little direct authority over the State Superintendent.
Does not have anything like the management authority of the UNC Board of Governors.
Has a tiny staff; depends on DPI for most staff support.

Department of Public Instruction
State funded agency to support K-12 education.
Managed by Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Deputy Superintendent is appointed by the Governor; not accountable to Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Staff of about 600 to provide assistance to local schools.
Provides guidance on some educational policies and practices, but has little direct control over local schools.

Superintendent of Public Instruction
Constitutional officer; elected by the people.
Has no direct control over Department of Public Instruction.
Not subject to direct management control of State Board, Governor or General Assembly.
A working politician with all the usual constraints on independence, not necessarily a professional educational manager, not hired by and reporting to a board like the UNC System President.

General Assembly
Funds about 70% of local school operations.
Provides intermittent capital support to supplement local funds (but has no statewide plan or funding public school facilities).
Approves statutes governing NC Education Lottery and distribution of lottery funds to schools for capital improvements.
Adopts public school legislation.

Appoints most members of State Board of Education.
No control over:
-Local school boards
-County government funding decisions
-Legislative funding or micro managing of schools
-Superintendent of Public Instruction
Despite this lack of management & funding authority, all NC Governors promise to improve schools.

Obviously this is an issue where change needs more discussion than a blog post allows. But here are three simple things that I recommend to align our management:
-Make the Superintendent of Public Instruction a position appointed by the Governor.
-Give the Superintendent the power to run DPI.
-Make the Superintendent chair of the State Board of Education.

The funding issues are way more complex. We'll have to deal with them later!


I agree with two of your

I agree with two of your three recommendations. I'd like to keep the entire Council of State elected.


I agree with that. We need a place for the buck to stop. What better person than the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

"Keep the Faith"

115 School Boards

The handout needs slight updating. There are now 115 Local School Boards.

I don't understand why we

I don't understand why we have to have 115 school districts. I think there needs to be some consolidation.

County & City School Districts

There used to be over 200. Some counties still have city school districts that have never merged and most of those are small. There are many reasons for this. There have actually been proposals in recent years to split large counties like Wake and Mecklenburg back into small districts. It's a very political issue. Some states have 100's of small school districts and some people moving here don't understand the countywide systems and the history of segregation in K-12 education. The districts outside the 100 county districts are:

Asheville City

Hickory City
Newton-Conover City

Whiteville City

Lexington City

Roanoke Rapids City
Weldon City

Mooresville City

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City

Asheboro City

Clinton City

Elkin City
Mount Airy City

Federal Schools
Cherokee Central
Fort Bragg/Camp Lejeune

I grew up in Pennsylvania.

Each school had their own district and as far as I know there was no other board above them. Taxes were paid locally to fund the schools (although I am sure there was state and county money as well). I'm saying this having come from the smallest school in our county and if we had our own school district/board, then I'm sure everyone did.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

Consolidation vs local control

As was noted, there are a 13 "city" school districts (plus the two federally run school systems) in addition to the 100 county school boards. I generally believe in smaller school districts, with no more than three high schools and their feeder systems under control of a single school board. That would mean some significant decentralization in the most populous counties, and perhaps consolidation in rural counties and places like Weldon or Newton-Conover. I believe that the "three-high school rule" would provide for districts that have diverse student populations, representing districts that would have roughly 10,000 students.

As for funding, the current model simply doesn't work. Wealthy school districts are able to pay higher teacher supplements, offer a broader curriculum, and build better facilities. The lottery distribution formula "punishes" counties with higher ad valorem property tax rates, as poorer counties with a lower tax base have to have higher property tax rates in order to generate sufficient revenue. Perhaps it is time to increase sales taxes or income taxes, reduce the property tax, and fund schools on a per-student basis from the state.

In 2005-2006 school year, NC had an "average daily membership (ADM)" of just over 1.36 million students in public schools, plus just over 26,000 in charter schools. Per pupil expenditures were just under $7,600 based on ADM, not including long-term debt service. Also in 2005, there was just over $1.16 billion in capital outlay spending, or just over $850 per pupil.

There is a wealth of financial and other data available at http://www.ncpublicschools.org/fbs/resources/data/ . The numbers above come from the Statistical Profile for 2007, which covers the 2005-06 school year.


The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR

You make some very good points

Tax equity and funding equity are important issues, and you have good ideas about improving that. Not so sure about a rule limiting districts to 3 high schools - wouldn't that required frequent redistricting in fast growing areas? Johnston County, for example, has 5 high schools, and is building two more. I like the idea of smaller high schools, but I wonder if districts would build larger schools to avoid splitting off into separate districts? Just a few questions that come to mind reading your post, not anything I have thought through, here.

Good point on districting

Instead of 3 high schools, perhaps a better baseline would be 10,000 students. That would result in Wake and Mecklenburg having 12 or 13 districts, Guilford having 7 or 8, Cumberland having 6,etc.


The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR

Shoulda run this by you Greg...

I knew you'd find any mistakes! Thanks for catching that. I'll correct it in the original post.

Taxing authority

Take county commissioners out of the funding stream altogether. Local elected school boards should have the authority to levy taxes for school operations and capital funding. Hold local school boards accountable for performance, but give them the authority to raise and appropriate funds commensurate with their responsibility for performance.

The state Superintendent of Public Instruction, as the head of DPI, should be responsible for establishing standards for curriculum, accounting and budgeting, faculty and staff certification, transportation and other operations, and facilities. Furthermore, DPI should be the primary resource for local school boards and administration in all these areas. The state BOE should establish broad policy (such as high school graduation requirements).

The heart of public schools should be the local school board. They are held responsible for many things, but we fail to provide them with the single most important tool they need -- the power to levy taxes. Schools suffer throughout the state because of the inherent conflict that exists IN EVERY COUNTY between the Board of Commissioners and the Boards of Education.



The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR

In counties such as mine, our

In counties such as mine, our county gives 50% of its budget to education and is the county's largest expenditure. Add that to the fact I live in a county with some of the state's highest taxes that wouldn't fly here.

It's a tough call

If local boards all had taxing authority, people might actually start paying attention to school board races and what is going on with our schools.

At least in Moore County, most seats are unopposed in every cycle. Also, perhaps if the school tax bill were pulled out seperately from the County tax bill, people might care more about how all that money is being spent.

On the other hand, we are in Moore County where there are more than a few well-off retirees who vocally complain about having to pay for schools at all since they "paid (their) share" while they were working. Were we to have local taxing authority here, I think there is the real danger that we'd get anti-tax people on the board making things even worse. We have some of the lowest tax bills in the state but these people scream bloody murder at any increase and are convinced that all local budgetary problems can be solved by "cutting government waste."

To say that people go

To say that people go unopposed because of apathy may be a wrong assumption. I'm sure the opposite statement could be true as well.

And another thing...

...while I'm occupying the soapbox.

Let's distribute lottery funding for public schools based on ADM, PERIOD! This current scheme is a total fiasco.


The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR


I agree (well, except with the beat Army part) ;)

Little Thebes

I agree about taking the commissioners out of it. The schools in our county are way behind in terms of our population growth and are the last consideration when it comes to funding. Meanwhile, our county complex has built one new expensive building after another. I liken it to Pharoah's Egypt where commissioners are just building monuments to themselves.

Governing magazine had...

...a good writeup on the federated nature of government services, local autonomy vs centralized consolidation. Here is a quote from Peter Harkness, Governing's founding publisher and editor:

"The largest single obstacle to efficient and effective governance is the culture of fragmentation. It's political, cultural and embedded in our federated system -- with our central government, 50 states, thousands of cities and counties, special districts, authorities. It's embedded in our organizational culture. It's hard -- often impossible -- for well-intended people to look out from their particular part of the world and see a broader vision, to see how their office or bureau or agency -- or even their state -- relates to others, how it fits into a very complex scheme of governance around them, over them, under them, even next to them.... The sharing and taming of information is one of the most powerful tools in combating the culture of fragmentation.... This process is made possible by new technologies, but we've made a mistake by dwelling on them in a vacuum. This isn't about technology in itself, it's about the convergence of policy, management and process."

And, I would add, governance.


There cannot fail to be more kinds of things, as nature grows further disclosed. - Sir Francis Bacon