Scholars decry NC legislature’s new direction

jstancill@newsobserver.comMarch 28, 2013 

— In a rare show of solidarity, professors from North Carolina’s public and private universities have joined to fight legislation being enacted by the Republican majority in Raleigh.

The group, called Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina, has been quietly organizing for months. On Thursday, the professors held a public forum they dubbed, “Save Our State,” to decry policies coming from the GOP-led legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory.

The forum, attended by a standing room only crowd in a Duke University lecture hall, had the feel of a political organizational meeting.

A panel of scholars picked apart actions by the state legislature’s Republicans to prevent Medicaid expansion, change voting laws, reduce unemployment benefits, lift environmental regulations, and promote charter schools and taxpayer-funded scholarships for students at private schools.

“This is what’s unfolding in our state – an extreme right-wing agenda, funded by some of the wealthiest individuals in North Carolina and the nation, is being jammed through at record speed,” said Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke.

MacLean likened it to the “shock and awe” doctrine of warfare.

“We are shocked, true,” she said, “but we are also energized. The new assembly has pushed us to speak out and to organize about what we know to be wrong and for the policies we know to be right and prudent for our state.”

Supporting private education

Helen Ladd, a professor of public policy studies and economics at Duke, said recent bills in Raleigh seek to enact a “private vision” of education in the state with vouchers that divert taxpayer money to private schools. A bill that would create a separate state school board to oversee charter schools, she said, would take North Carolina in the wrong direction.

“It’s outrageous and scary to those of us who care about public education,” she said.

The proposals divert attention and resources away from the public schools, Ladd added. “Education is an investment in the future of our children and also in the future of our state. Strong public education systems takes years to build, but can be quickly destroyed.”

Health policies decried

David Jolly, an associate professor of public health education at N.C. Central University, said the moves in Raleigh will lead to poorer health for many people in the state. He cited a bill that would end a mandatory motorcycle helmet law as one example.

But worse, he said, is the decision by policymakers to turn down federal dollars to expand Medicaid.

“Any way you look at it, refusing to expand Medicaid just makes no sense,” Jolly said. “It’s not in keeping with North Carolina’s past commitment to public health. It is politics at its worst and it could compromise the health and well-being of the 500,000 North Carolinians who will remain uninsured because of this decision.”

Blame for both sides

Hodding Carter III, professor of public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, was blunt in his assessment of Republicans in Raleigh, calling them “reactionaries” rather than conservatives.

But the former Carter State Department spokesman placed the blame with liberals in North Carolina, who he said had been self-satisfied and complacent. Republicans, meanwhile, were smartly planning and looking ahead.

This is as much a failure of the left as it is a success of the right, Carter said. “We have repeatedly allowed intellectual elitism and contempt to cloud our vision of what the hell is out there,” he said.

Besides professors from around the state, the forum drew students and others who were curious about the newly formed group. Jay Schalin, director of state policy analysis for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a Raleigh-based conservative think tank, said he was surprised at the tone of the event.

“I think some of the rhetoric was over the top,” he said. “It seems as though they are trying to demonize rather than to engage in a discourse.”

More forums to come

Clearly, though, the group plans to be active. They handed out cards and plan to hold similar forums around the state.

Carter urged the scholars to band together and look at the larger picture beyond their narrow fields of expertise.

“It requires people to get up off their butt, not to come to a meeting that we’ll all applaud, but to stay committed over time in the various ways that are necessary,” he said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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