Only days before Arne Duncan hailed North Carolina as one of the stars of the Race to the Top, Bill McDiarmid, dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, warned that public education was in dire peril in the state. 

Although North Carolina was once renowned as the most forward-looking state in the south, known for fundings its schools and for promoting statewide early childhood education under previous governors, the current governor and legislature seem determined to obliterate the common schools of North Carolina. The mantra of the legislature–echoing Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and the rest of the false reformers, is that “our schools are broken.”

Their solution: charters and vouchers; Teach for America; flunking third graders who don’t pass a reading test, and other punitive actions. At the same time, they enacted generous corporate tax breaks. The shift of public funds away from public schools to the private sector will exacerbate racial segregation. When the radical extremists took control of the legislature, they made sure to gerrymander their own districts to maintain a majority.

McDiarmid writes:

Concerns about the direction of education in the state are widely shared. Researchers at UNC-Wilmington recently conducted a poll of 2,350 state residents. They found that 94 percent of the respondents believe that education is now headed in the wrong direction in the state. Large majorities disagreed with recent policy decisions: 85 percent disapprove of vouchers for students to attend private schools; 81 percent believe that the state should provide scholarships to talented high school students to attract them to teaching via the Teaching Fellows Program; 96 percent disagree with cutting the salary incentive for teachers to pursue master’s degrees; and 75 percent disagree with eliminating tenure. In sum, probably a very significant majority of North Carolinians disagrees with the current policy direction.

The bad news for those concerned about where we are headed is that a number of key folks in the General Assembly are in “safe seats.” This tends to make legislators less responsive to the concerns of the public. These lawmakers are highly unlikely to be turned out this fall — or perhaps for several elections to come. In 2010, the Republican majority in the Legislature controlled redistricting. They were able to create for themselves election districts that virtually ensured their re-elections and the dominance of their party throughout the decade. Certainly, a number of these folks in the majority are open to conversation and debate about educational policy and attend to non-partisan research. Some who hold key leadership posts appear committed, however, to an agenda intent on replacing public schools with private schools.

Equally discouraging are the changes to the tax code. The majority passed legislation rolling back corporate and individual taxes. A flat 5.8 percent tax on incomes replaced the almost century-old graduated tax schedule. The cost to the state of these changes? Over $1 billion annually. At this rate, North Carolina is well on its way to meeting Grover Norquist’s goal of shrinking the size of government to “where it can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” As the largest expenditure category in the state budget, education is already fighting for air.

Absent from much of the debate about the move toward privatization is attention to the role of public schooling in a democratic society. Our schools trace their origins back to 19th century public school advocates. Recognizing that an educated citizenry is essential to maintaining a democracy, they believed that mixing of children from all social classes in free “common schools” would lead to a stronger sense of shared civic purpose.

Due to persistent residential segregation, North Carolina failed to achieve the goal of schools where all our children – regardless of social class, race, or family circumstances – learn together. Yet, for many children, school remains the one place where they rub shoulders with others who differ from themselves socially, linguistically, and culturally. Like it or not, they must learn to get along with these “others” – arguably a critical attitude in a diverse democratic society such as ours.