My parents moved to Durham, NC 40 years ago. My brother finished high school and college there and has worked at Research Triangle Park forever it seems. My sister and her family are also there.
So in some ways the Tarheel State always seemed like my second home. Goodness knows how many times I traveled I-85 through Georgia and South Carolina on the way to Durham. And like many across the rest of the south, I long looked at North Carolina as an example of what progressive leadership could accomplish, especially in public education.
However, the situation has totally turned in the last few years as elected leadership in Raleigh seems intent on undoing decades of progress.
Dr. Helen Ladd is a professor at Duke University. One of her areas of expertise is educational policy. He has degrees from Wellesley College, the London School of Economics and Harvard.
Here is a chilling, and lengthy, report she wrote two years ago about North Carolina. It is impossible to read this and not relate to things that are now unfolding in Alabama. Basically, we are following their game plan.
Here are excerpts:
Changes took aim at teacher job security and working conditions. The new laws abolish career status by 2018 and pit teachers against one another within schools in a competition for $500 per year salary increases for four years. Still other legislation moved the state education system in the direction of choice and privatization, including a new school voucher program that diverts taxpayer funds from public schools to private and religious schools. The legislation does not require those private schools to be accountable for producing gains in student achievement, as the state requires of public schools.
In a July 9, 2013 editorial entitled “The Decline of North Carolina,” the New York Times likened the Republican agenda to a “demolition derby” and observed, “North Carolina was once considered a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness. In a few short months, Republicans have begun to dismantle a reputation that took years to build.”
One was a law barring the North Carolina Association of Educators from collecting dues from teachers’ paychecks via payroll deduction.
North Carolina’s reputation as a “progressive” Southern state developed over the second half of the 20th century largely because of far-sighted leaders who pursued what Rob Christenson, a veteran political reporter for the Raleigh-based News & Observer, described as a “middle way, spending more on roads, universities and culture, and later on community colleges and research parks, as a way to modernize.” This so-called “North Carolina Way” – characterized by Southern historian V.O. Key as “progressive plutocracy” – was embraced by forward-looking business leaders as an alternative to the low-tax, low-regulation strategies of other Southern states. It also benefited from a succession of strong governors from both parties. These included Democrats Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford, who set the tone in the 1950s and early 1960’s, and Republicans James Holshouser Jr. in the 1970s and James Martin in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Teachers were attracted to North Carolina by its relatively low cost of living and a bipartisan commitment to public education. In 1997 the state ranked 43rd in teacher pay level, but by 2001 Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., working with Republican House speaker Harold Brubaker and with strong support from the business community, had ratcheted teacher salaries up to the national average, As recently as 2008 North Carolina was paying teachers better than half the country.
We must be careful, however, not to overstate the “progressive” nature of North Carolina. Much of the state is rural, poor, deeply religious and conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and race relations are always just under the surface of public policy issues, including education.
The current push to balkanize the statewide public education system through charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools and home schooling is viewed by many observers as a 21st century form of white flight and segregation academies. The trend has been reinforced by a growing number of evangelicals who regard public schools as bastions of secular values.
Parallel efforts to systematically undermine public education in North Carolina can be found in other Republican-controlled states, including Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
While Republican lawmakers may have justified budget cuts for public schools on budgetary grounds, other aspects of their education agenda seemed rooted in a desire to discredit and dismantle teaching as a profession in a state where there is no teacher’s union.
The General Assembly voted to eliminate career status by July 1, 2018 and to replace it with a system whereby all teachers would lose job protection and be offered contracts ranging from one- to four years at the discretion of school administrators.
Professional development is essentially a thing of the past in North Carolina. Professional development programs were gutted at the same time that $5 million found to hire novice teachers through Teach for America, a majority of whom can be expected to leave after two or three years and will not be hanging around to collect pensions down the road. The state’s nationally-acclaimed Teaching Fellows program, a tool designed to steer bright young people into teaching and keep them for at least four years, was ended.
In another move, the General Assembly adopted a policy, already in place in Florida, under which all public schools, including charters, will be graded on an A to F scale based on student test scores and, in the case of high schools, criteria such as four-year graduation rates. The grading system is widely expected to have the effect of discrediting public schools, especially those serving disadvantaged students. In looking to Florida’s original plan for inspiration, lawmakers ignored the fact that Florida had by then recognized serious flaws in this rigid rating system.
They (General Assembly) created the North Carolina Charter Schools Advisory Board to advise the State Board on which new applications to approve and renew. Significantly, they specified that members of the new advisory board must have demonstrated “a commitment to charter schools as a strategy for strengthening public education.”
In addition to encouraging a proliferation of charters, the General Assembly enacted a voucher program – billed as “Opportunity Scholarships” – that will provide up to $4,200 in taxpayer dollars for low-income students to attend largely unaccountable private schools, a majority of which are religious, starting in the fall of 2014. While cutting funding for traditional public schools, legislators nevertheless found $10 million from public education funds to support the voucher program for the first year. Legislative leaders tout vouchers as a way to come to the assistance of poor students and disparage critics as socially irresponsible.
Voucher critics point out that North Carolina does not enforce academic standards or accountability measures for non-public schools, which can also choose which students to admit and need not admit special education students.
The Republican education agenda in North Carolina is familiar to anyone who has seen parallel efforts in other states. Former Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush has visited North Carolina trumpeting his now-familiar package of reforms that include testing, charter schools and an A-F grading system.
The Republican assault on public education in North Carolina is all the more disturbing because there is no validity to claims that the system is “broken” and needs to be “fixed,” as Republicans are wont to claim. By all accounts, North Carolina students do well on measures of academic performance, and high school graduation rates have increased consistently over the last decade. The four-year high school graduation rate is at all-time high of 82.5 percent, up by 14 percentage points since 2006. The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, popularly known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” show that North Carolina eighth graders perform well above the national average in science and math and just as well as all but six of 47 developed countries.
The News & Observer reported on Feb. 9, 2013, “North Carolina’s teacher pipeline is leaking at both ends. Public school teachers are leaving in bigger numbers, while fewer people are pursuing education degrees at the state’s universities.” Teacher turnover in 2012-13 reached the second highest rate in a decade; early retirements are up; and enrollment in teacher training programs at the University of North Carolina institution declined by nearly 7 percent in 2013.
A survey of practicing 630 teachers and administrators in the summer of 2013 by Scott Imig and Robert Smith of UNC-Wilmington found, among other things, that 97 percent think that the legislative changes have had a “negative effect on teacher morale, 66 percent believe think they have done likewise to the quality of teaching and learning in their own school, and 74 percent are now “less likely to continue working as a teacher/administrator in North Carolina.”