Comment

Ford: N.C.’s grand project: the learning curve

December 2, 2012 

How we decide to spend our money reflects what we think is important. So when we see that in North Carolina, the largest share of public expenditures is devoted to education, that says a lot about our priorities.

It says good things – that we understand there’s no higher obligation than to give our young people a chance to learn, to teach them skills and values and habits of mind that underlie successful careers, self-fulfillment and responsible citizenship.

Yet we seem to have an ambivalence toward putting money toward our schools and universities. In some respects the ambivalence is irrational, given our educational systems’ obvious needs if they are to do right by the students entrusted to them and, in turn, to the communities where those students live.

To state it plainly, there must be no blank checks signed by the taxpayers. Every function of government, including those with the noblest of purposes such as education, must be held to standards of efficiency, effectiveness and honesty. Even if tax revenue grew on trees, it should not be wasted.

But too often, when it comes to setting taxes at a level adequate to pay teachers competitively, or to keep class sizes down, or even to make sure enough books and supplies are available, it’s the schools and students that lose out. Surely the cuts in education spending imposed by the General Assembly in the current state budget have not helped schools and universities carry out their missions. Yet the choice was made to let a temporary sales tax increase expire on schedule. That was a case of ideology trumping responsible stewardship of the machinery of education.

The politicians who opt for budget cuts of this nature must be channeling an undercurrent of hostility to the schools and campuses.

It’s an undercurrent that stretches back into history, when the privileged class thought it inconvenient or unwise to let the children of sharecroppers and mill hands learn much of anything that would help them improve their stations. Go back far enough, and the least privileged – slaves – weren’t supposed to learn to read and write at all.

An early sign that the progressive movement was resonating in North Carolina involved the push to widen educational opportunities, for both whites and blacks. There were huge disparities and shortcomings, but the principle took root. It’s why Gov. Charles B. Aycock, serving from 1901 to 1905, is still honored despite his role in that era’s despicable white supremacism.

The ensuing decades saw that progressive impulse shine at the university level. The state supported its public universities in the recognition that they were matchless engines of opportunity, available at modest cost to anyone with the necessary intelligence and drive. North Carolina began climbing a ladder of knowledge that would lead to the signature enterprise called Research Triangle Park and that would help set it apart from other Southern states still clinging to that ladder’s bottom rungs.

Leaders in the mid- and late 20th century – governors such as Luther Hodges, Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt; legislators such as Sen. Kenneth Royall Jr. of Durham; a business lobby organized as the N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry that understood the vital link between education and prosperity – pushed to strengthen that link.

Hunt, for example, became a national leader in encouraging teachers to meet high professional standards. Who can say, though, that capable teachers even today are accorded the pay and status they deserve?

There remain too many students who underperform or drop out. The cry goes up to punish the teachers who aren’t getting the job done – when too often the students sent their way are burdened with family circumstances offering little support, guidance, faith that efforts to learn will be rewarded.

“Government school” critics seek taxpayer support for private alternatives and get a warm reception among conservative legislators who scorn public school teachers, pushing for better pay and more overall funding, as political foes.

Meanwhile, support for the universities teeters among those who share a sense that faculty members and administrators are losing touch with the needs of the ordinary citizens who pay their comfortable salaries. When the most senior of our universities, UNC-Chapel Hill, is beset with disclosures of academic fraud linked to the athletics program, that doesn’t help.

Skepticism toward the universities leads to budget cuts and to calls for a more cold-eyed approach toward cranking out employable graduates – a fine goal, but one that risks shortchanging the broader purposes of higher education.

North Carolina has come a long way from the days when even among its neighboring states it ranked as a poor, rural backwater. Its grand project of the past dozen decades has been to overcome the forces of inertia and self-interest holding its people back and to open for them doors of opportunity provided by well-resourced schools and campuses. Never has it been more important for that project to be sustained, and to succeed.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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