“I am no fan of hyperbole, but I mean it when I say this: North Carolina is waging war against public education.”
That was written in August 2015 by James Hogan, a former teacher who is now a writer and a fundraiser at Davidson College and a board member of the public education advocacy group Our Schools First. He was referring to more than five years of policies set by conservative Republican lawmakers who, among other things, slashed education spending, promoted charter schools and school vouchers without ensuring sufficient accountability and oversight, and eliminated due-process rights for many teachers.
And now, what public education advocates see as a broad assault on public schools just got blatantly worse.
Republican legislators in North Carolina, who apparently couldn’t accept the GOP defeat in November’s gubernatorial election, just passed a series of bills to weaken the incoming Democratic governor’s power — and one of them affects public education. GOP lawmakers said the moves were simply a needed realignment of power. Opponents equated it to a legislative coup.
One of the bills transfers a great deal of power from the State Board of Education — whose members are mostly selected by the governor — to the state superintendent of public instruction, an elected official. The new state superintendent will be Republican Mark Johnson, who defeated the Democratic incumbent, June Atkinson, in November.
The legislation has been sent to outgoing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — who narrowly lost reelection to Democrat Roy Cooper — and he has already signed one of the newly passed bills that would effectively give Republicans control of the state Board of Elections during election years.
A report issued a year ago by N.C. Policy Watch, a division of the progressive North Carolina Justice Center, explains the effects of conservative policies that began to be implemented by Republicans after they won a majority in the state legislature in 2010. Titled “Altered State: How 5 years of conservative rule have redefined North Carolina,” the report said that the GOP “legislative leaders moved to consolidate and preserve their power, with gerrymandered electoral maps and new voting laws aimed at making it tougher for people who don’t generally support Republicans to vote.” In 2012, McCrory was elected governor, the report said, adding:
Republicans also understood that their gerrymandered districts and many of their most radical attempts to remake the state would face legal challenges. Gathering millions in donations from allied outside political groups, they maintained a majority on the N.C. Supreme Court, where many of the challenges to their agenda would land. With all three branches of government securely under their control, the ideological shift left few areas of state policy untouched.
With regard to education, the report said that the state, once known across the country for its commitment to public schools, began to dismantle the system:
The nationally recognized Teaching Fellows program has been abolished, even as the state struggles to recruit bright students into the profession, merely because of its ties to prominent Democrats like former Gov. Jim Hunt. Low-income kids and their families are the biggest losers in the attacks on public schools, but there are winners in the ideological assault: new for-profit companies that run charter schools, private and religious academies that now receive taxpayer funding and sketchy online institutions that are raking in state dollars.
Public education spending was cut dramatically as a reaction to the Great Recession, but when the economy began to turn around, public education funding was not adequately restored by the governing Republicans. Per-pupil spending in North Carolina from 2007-2008 to 2014-2015, when adjusted for inflation, fell 14.5 percent, the report said.
If McCrory signs the legislation, which he is expected to do, the Republicans will have secured a way for them to continue to take aim at what was once a highly regarded public school system.