Public education in North Carolina is often discussed in terms of pitched battles and grim defeats. Republican legislators are at odds with teachers, and traditional public schools are being sapped by a push for more charter schools, virtual charters and vouchers for private schools. We hear that public schools are failing, an alarming number of third-grade students can’t read, North Carolina teachers are among the lowest paid and per-pupil funding is shrinking.
Yet while many factions are embattled over education, an important alliance has been engaged in improving it. Best NC is a business-driven effort to move the state’s education system from adequate to excellent. It’s a good cause, but not necessarily an altruistic one. The state’s businesses know that they have a shortage of well-qualified workers now – 40 percent report openings in “absolutely critical” positions – and the shortage will eventually impede the state’s economy unless its education system improves.
Best NC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition founded in 2013, has brought together business and philanthropic leaders, educators and government officials to craft a vision of education in North Carolina from pre-K to graduate school. It calls for strong funding, broad cooperation and high expectations. And it may be the state’s best chance to put aside the fighting and focus on achieving.
Best NC Chairman Walter McDowell, the retired CEO of Wachovia Bank of North Carolina, told reporters and editors at The News & Observer last week, “Success in public education is a shared responsibility. It is what we must do, and we must go out and do it together.”
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A vision takes shape
The group published a draft report in February that draws on months of meetings by 325 people in 18 working groups to crystallize a vision for North Carolina’s education system. The report is being circulated among all who have a stake in education. In April, the group will push to have educators, government officials and businesses leaders collectively support the strategic plan that aims to make North Carolina’s education system the best in the nation.
The Best NC push is based on an effort that worked well in Massachusetts. Starting 26 years ago, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education set a reform vision it summarizes as: “All students can, and must, be better educated; schools must meet higher standards and be held accountable for performance.” The group helped pass Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act and the results have been impressive. The Bay State’s education system is ranked as the best in the nation.
Tennessee has launched a similar effort – State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) – and is now credited with having the nation’s fastest improving schools.
Aiming for the top
Best NC says that North Carolina’s constitutional commitment to equitable funding for its public schools and its university system and its tradition of training teachers and principals through its public universities make it “uniquely in position to have the best education system in the nation.” Despite that potential, the Best NC report says, North Carolina must confront its “crisis of mediocrity.”
By 2020, 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require some post-secondary education, but the state ranks 47th in the nation in meeting the need for education beyond high school, the report says. While North Carolina is near the national average in reading and math among fourth-graders, it ranks last in the rate of improving math scores and 41st in improving reading scores.
To move North Carolina from slipping to gaining, Best NC proposes these steps: support students with more resources, make a teaching career here competitive in pay and benefits with other top professions and raise expectations by making readiness for college and work a priority for every student.
A vision alone won’t change the downward drift in North Carolina’s education system, but people working on it together will.