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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Dallas Herring, May 16, 1987. Interview C-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Advocating grassroots democracy in school board politics

Herring suggests a process for selecting a state superintendent of education in this excerpt. A strong believer in democracy, Herring is mistrustful of the democratic status quo in the United States, worrying that political appointments subvert the democratic process. Here, he proposes a new, more responsive process for of choosing a state superintendent of education.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Dallas Herring, May 16, 1987. Interview C-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Dallas, as you know, there's a movement afoot to submit a constitutional ammendment that would make the state superintendent of public instruction appointive instead of elective. How do you view that issue?
Well, I have many feelings about it and considerable experience with the whole idea. First, let me say this. We are laboring under the fiction that we have a democratic procedure for choosing a superintendent, which is not true. The long ballot is not real democracy. It's a way for an elite to decide who will be in these positions. I don't feel that my dear old friend Jim Graham 4 is a typical North Carolinian, but I didn't choose Jim for that job. 4 Commissioner of Agriculture Did you? Maybe he's doing the best that anybody can do, and I should think he's doing very well. But we are laboring under the fiction that the people choose these council of state members. The people have no real opportunity to decide. It's just a name on a ballot, and there are too many of them. There's coming a time though—a procedure that neglects—I'm at a loss to explain exactly what I mean by that. We are going to elect a superior court judge for western North Carolina. We don't know him. We don't know anything about him. All we see is his name. That's not democracy. It is an abuse of democracy. It is a use of democracy to maintain the status quo, meaning to keep the power where the power is. A Republican hasn't got a Chinaman's chance there, and everybody knows it. That's one of the reasons for having it. Point number one, the system we have is not, really, de facto democratic though it probably could be argued to the jury that it is. What's more democratic than having a statewide election? But the system is not producing a democratic choice. People intend to keep the incumbents in, and that's the reason for having that system. If you will look at the superintendents that have been chosen since J.Y. Joyner, most of them have been appointed by governors. The most disastrous choice we've had was not appointed by a governor, but won when it was thrown open to a free election by Charlie Carroll's announcement that he would not run again.
You're speaking of the incumbent?
Yes. [Laughter] He's not a Democrat. He's a dictator. I'm not angry with him. I'm telling you the historic truth about him. Okay, point number one, we do not have a democratic system. How do we get a better system? You see, I follow my own advice. What kind of a system do we have? What kind do we need, and how do we get the kind we agree we need? All right, the system we have stinks. What kind do we need? I would say we need one that provides the democratic safeguards, that provides the people an opportunity to make a wise choice. That's complex. What are you going to do, have a precinct meeting and discuss the issues in over twenty-two hundred precincts? We believe, after all, in representative government. There's nothing undemocratic about the idea of representative government. As a Presbyterian elder I have stood on that ground for many years and so has the federal constitution and the state constitution. We have tried to create the fiction in North Carolina, and the Council of State members from Thad Eure on down have tried to create the fiction, that representative government is most democratic—in insisting that the public elect all these professional heads of departments. That's like saying we can't choose the President of the United States to appoint the Secretary of State. The system seems to work very well there. If he doesn't do the job, he gets booted out in a hurry, and most of them have turned out as failures, severely criticized. It takes years for their reputation to take shape again. Dean Rusk is only now becoming somewhat acceptable to the majority of people. Just as Truman went out of office with a lot of enemies— he is now one of our elder statesmen, even though he was one of the critics of Martin Luther King. Called him a "rabble-rouser" [laughter] , but we now accept Truman. My point is, in trying to answer the question what kind of a superintendent do we need, we need one who is representative of the people. We just talked about Jim Hunt's innocent, and the Carnegie Corporation's not so innocent, desire to establish a hierarchy that will determine for all of us Catholics what kind of a religion we're going to have, in education. I don't want us to make that mistake in North Carolina. The trouble is, in practice, we have always made that mistake. We've had some great superintendents; we've had some mediocre ones; and we've had one disaster at least. I can document that, but I won't go into that now. So we need a different system. We need one where democracy can come to play, and my point is that representative government is democratic. All right, having established the philosophical basis, let me give you my solution. In my last visit to the School of Dentistry to get this prothesis ground down and added to in places, I got the young fellow who was driving me to go by the Kenan Building. I didn't have any idea where it was but we found it. I went in to see Bill Friday since … I didn't like the way he was shoved out any more than I liked the way I was shoved out. I wanted to go by and shake his hand. He's a great person. He and I came into office about the same time and worked very closely together over those years, and I am deeply grateful to him for his friendship. Going into the building, I saw someone across the parking lot going towards the door a little ahead of me, and I knew I knew who he was, but I couldn't see him well enough to be sure. We went on up to the penthouse in this magnificient new modern structure, and Bill's secretary recognized me and said he was out to lunch. I didn't have an appointment. She said, "Bill Snider is in here. Come on, both of you, and sit in Bill's office and talk until he comes back." So we did. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Bill. You know, Bill served on the commission to rewrite the constitutional ammendments. It must have been in the early seventies. I've forgotten the year. He had charge of a subcommittee recommending changes in the governance of education. The result was that he took the state superintendent off the Board of Education. I talked with him about it at the time, but I didn't realize he was going to do that. He had the idea that the professional head should not be a voting member of the board. Craig didn't realize it until it was all fixed and voted on [laughter]. It was before we had an open split. Bill said, "I've just been to a meeting of the commission to recommend changes in the way the state superintendent is chosen." It was a legislative committee, I think, that appointed him. He wanted to know my view of it. I said, "I'm on record favoring what we have and favoring the change, I can teach that the world is flat or it is round." [Laughter]. But here's what I sincerely think is a solution to it if you believe in representative government. The people who have to work with the superintendent should initiate the choice, that is, the board of education. They are the ones who do it locally. Take the county board of education in Raleigh, for example, for Wake County. They choose the superintendent. Realizing that this is a statewide responsibility and the people who choose are not elected state wide—they are appointed by the governor and confirmed by both houses of the general assembly—let them initiate the choice. They make their nomination to the governor, and if the governor agrees, he passes it on to the general assembly for confirmation. If he doesn't agree, he tells the board of education to come up with somebody else that the two can agree upon, the board and the governor. If they finally reach an agreement, and it goes to the general assembly, the general assembly has the option to approve or disapprove. If they don't approve of it, you go through the process until you get all three groups in agreement. Then and then only is the appointment made, and it is made for a term, not for life. When the term is out, we go through the same process. That is exactly the way we choose the controller. The governor doesn't appoint the controller. He appoints him on nomination of the board. It stops there and doesn't go on to the general assembly, but it should, I think. He handles the most money of any departmental fiscal officer in state affairs. There's no reason in the world why the general assembly, being the ultimate authority, should not have the right to approve the person who's going to handle all that money. They are elected by the grass roots. The governor is elected by the grass roots. They approve the members of the Board of Education, and the governor appoints them. What better system could you possibly find to bring about harmony and responsible leadership in the structure of education? You don't produce these prima donas who think the board should be their rubber stamp and rooting section and not have any independent thoughts. Let me tell you this, if it had not been for the lay members of the State Board of Education, we would not have a community college system in North Carolina today. We would not have had the curriculum study that you and Pete McKnight and I were concerned with when we went to New York and Connecticut. We would not have had the citizens' committee movement. All these things came about at the insistence of local non-professional citizens taking part in policy making in education. The tendency of the elected professional is to secure his political position. If he's an activist, as Craig is, very shallow in his intellect, he follows every nuance that comes along. He reads a new book on career education, and we have a go with that. He gets everybody excited and nothing really happens except turmoil. He overemphasizes one segment of education to the detriment of the rest of them. Craig has a genuine and commendable interest in early childhood education. He has done much to get the kindergartens going and has improved the primary grade program. I cannot in all truth say that he has done anything in the important areas of high school English programs. Foreign languages programs are being deemphasized. History was cutout of the curriculum—the history of North Carolina. American history was watered down, depleted, as were the social studies programs. The qualitative standards were obliterated. The state was watered down, depleted, as were the social studies programs. The qualitative standards were obliterated. The state accreditation means nothing now except the American Management Association's idea and its system of management by objectives—a bunch of gobbledy-gook which means simply that you decide for yourself what kind of standard you want to acheive and then you measure your advancement toward that standard. What a far cry from the idea that there would be a concensus established by professional leaders throughout the state in a statewide, cooperative effort, local and state, to say what the ideal school should have and then measure the progress of the particular school towards the achievement of the ideal. No such thing as that anymore. The Southern Association is the only thing that we have, and it has its similar problems. So my answer is, we need a superintendent who can lead the people and perform his professional task and be assured of the backing of those who constitutionally establish policy and provide leadership in state government—meaning the governor, the board, and the legislature. That's the procedure to get there. If he doesn't perform, then the same procedure can turn him out of office and get somebody else. I told Bill Snider that I personally would support the idea that if a board becomes irresponsible and does not do its duty—you get a bunch of people there who are obviously misfits and not able to do it, not willing to do it, don't want to do it, don't know how to do it—there ought to be a way to remove them. The general assembly, on nomination of the governor or with the concurrence of the governor and the general assembly, could remove such people from office and appoint somebody in their place. I would have been a lot safer myself. I had the experience there with one or two appointments—such obvious misfits, who caused a lot of trouble, and had no desire to make a contribution, simply the desire to take sides and put up a fuss.