Point of View

Back to where we were?

June 8, 2011 

— So now, on the budget, we're down to it.

The governor must decide whether to abet and embrace legislative handiwork that will not only slash social services in an hour of compelling need, but crush an historic Tar Heel commitment to public education as well.

The House and Senate seek to fire thousands of educators; inflict body blows on Smart Start and More at Four; drop us to 49th or so in K-12 per pupil funding; and exact the largest cuts to community colleges and universities in North Carolina history. Should the legislators prevail, we will yearn for the long-sighted commitment to public endeavor evident in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina.

It is thought that the debate now consuming us is an ideological one. And ideological it is. Legislative leaders reportedly believe that if they can repeatedly lower taxes, nix regulations and further tilt the competitive field toward business, all will prosper. The governor, unsurprisingly, clings to a progressive mantle - investing in our people and our places to assure new avenues of opportunity and promise. The battle is joined - conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, red or blue?

But our disagreement is also pointedly historical. We have, in other words, been here before.

A century ago, North Carolina had the highest illiteracy rate in the South and one of the highest in the country. We spent only 20 percent of the national average on education - worst in the land. Economic studies deemed us "the least productive" state in the union. We ranked near the bottom in income. During World War II, more Tar Heels were declared physically unfit for military service than candidates from any other state. As late as 1960, 40 percent of our families lived in wrenching poverty. Four decades ago, we ranked 48th in percentage of residents who had graduated high school.

In both competitive and humane terms, we were lodged at the bottom of the South. And the South was lodged at the bottom of the nation.

Our plight is very different now. The derisive "Rip Van Winkle State" moniker has been left in the dust. In recent decades, we've been one of the fastest growing, and most appealing, American states. Poverty, though still troubling, has been markedly diminished. Changes in educational attainment, at both the K-12 and higher education levels, have been among the most impressive ever seen in the United States. Health care innovations have changed the lives of our citizens and set the pace for other regions. And we can boast of metropolitan, commercial and intellectual centers that are the envy of much of the world.

These massive and proud changes did not come to pass by eliminating taxation, gutting the public sector or giving the back of the hand to the education of our children. Nor were they achieved by asking as little of ourselves as possible; or rejecting a constructive and ambitious role for government in building "a nobler and fresher civilization in this ancient commonwealth."

They flowed, instead, from determined and painful efforts to jointly invest in a shared and tenuous future. They resulted from the embrace of temporary sacrifice to achieve longer-sought gain. They emanated from boldness and belief. They recognized, overtly, a common plight; a studied conviction - both democratic and religious - that we are bound together.

The path has been difficult, and halting, and costly. But its success has been undeniable. Now we frequently compete to lead the nation, not to trail it.

This is why, I think, it can be so moving, and illuminating, to speak of our present challenges with old heads - like my friends Bill Friday and Bill Aycock, the former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor.

These different approaches to our future, to one another, to our successors, are not, for them, merely theoretical or fanciful. They are not the cute words of pundits or purists. They are more vital, more central, than politics or persuasion. More crucial than elections and campaigns. They are the lived lessons of a people. Their hallmarks are etched in our attainments. Their hopes line our destinies. Their promises press from one generation to another.

They represent obligations that do not yield - whether times are easy or immensely hard.

Gene Nichol is a professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of the university's Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.

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