Martinez: Turning education around

October 30, 2012 

For once, a general election in North Carolina really will be about education, and not just because of candidates’ rhetoric or policy proposals. This election will affect education because the State Board of Education may well be in line for a major philosophical overhaul.

The predicate in this shakeup is the election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor, which polling has consistently shown to be likely. On Day One, the new governor can appoint three like-minded people to the 13-member education board. Terms are eight years long.

The opportunity is waiting because earlier this year the Republican-led General Assembly decided not to take up an appointment and two reappointments that expired in 2011. The reason is simple. Senate President Phil Berger said the board picks should belong to the next governor.

In 2013, terms expire for three more board members, giving the new governor a second round of appointments. Add to those the friendly votes of Republicans John Tedesco, should he be elected state superintendent of public instruction, and Dan Forest, if he becomes lieutenant governor. Both officeholders sit on the state school board.

If this scenario plays out, within a year McCrory appointees and allies would dominate the board, which sets K-12 education policy and has for years embraced a traditional, system-driven approach to public education. Key among the first round of reappointments to be considered is that of the board chairman, William Harrison, who has been openly hostile to the General Assembly’s education funding decisions. If McCrory is elected, I’ll bet the mortgage that Harrison is toast.

Among the more tantalizing rumors on a possible replacement is – you guessed it – former Wake County school superintendent and (and retired Army general) Tony Tata. Even though he was fired after only two years on the job, he oversaw some remarkable academic gains in the classroom.

Wouldn’t that be sweet?

Now for the important part. McCrory, Tedesco and Forest are reform-minded supporters of individual parental choice (particularly through charter schools), local control, and innovation and competition among schools. These are reforms the current State Board of Education basically detests. Its members all but say so in a “vision statement” adopted earlier this month.

Actually, this isn’t a vision statement. It’s a power grab based on a 10-page, 10-section statement by former New York Times education editor Edward Fiske and Duke economics professor Helen Ladd.

To see that this is a staunch defense of the educational status quo, read section 6 of Fiske and Ladd’s statement, entitled, “A coherent and flexible system.” It’s all about the system as defined by the state school board. The needs of individual students and parents are subservient. Charter schools must fall in line. “To justify state support, they (charters) must also embrace the central values of the public school system of which they are a part.”

So much for educational diversity in the public schools.

However, it’s Section 7, “A vision for public education” that’s really the nightmare. The fourth paragraph starts, “This vision emphasizes community and cooperation.” That’s education speak for conformity and control. Plus, “Such cooperation might take the form of state policy makers working closely with local school boards and educators when authorizing charter schools or other educational options so as to assure that both the statewide and community-specific interests are furthered.”

Is there any doubt which body would win if a local school board wants a proposed charter school approved, but the state board doesn’t? And in case statewide and community-specific interests conflict, any guess about which would prevail?

The new vision statement of the State Board and the Fiske and Ladd paper which spawned it are evidence that the board needs new direction, regardless of who’s elected as governor, lieutenant governor and state superintendent.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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