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The Assault on Public Education Continues in North Carolina

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Down in North Carolina, a revolution is afoot. The revolution appears to have begun in 2008, when a little known senator from some northern state managed to get himself on the ballot as the nominee of one of the two major parties (the one that's not so popular down in North Carolina) for president. That was bad enough, but then he went out and won more votes than the guy he was running against that year. Even worse, he won more votes in North Carolina. And that, apparently, has had more than a few people in that state's government running scared ever since.

That senator, of course, was Barack Obama. His election seems to have set off a counterrevolution in the Tar Heel state that has unfolded like a tragi-comic farce: comedic in the sense that his opponents can't seem to stop falling all over themselves to undo any and everything that they think may have resulted in his election, tragic in the sense that so much of what they are doing had little to do directly with his election in the first place. Worse than that, much of what they're undoing had helped make North Carolina one of the most sought-after places in the country, a place that attracted educated people drawn to its varied geography, great barbecue, rich cultural traditions, and mild climate. Oh, and its reasonably progressive approach to things like education and public works.

Indeed, North Carolina used to be known as a "vale of humility between two mountains of conceit"—a sometimes surprisingly progressive state tucked between more haughty, and more conservative, neighbors to the north and south.  North Carolina never boasted the most generous teacher salaries but it did offer opportunities for professional development in higher education, at a mix of top-flight public universities and top-flight private ones, too, and a growing economy centered on its famous "Research Triangle." As of 2013, North Carolina still had the largest number of teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—there were more than 20,000 of them, almost 20% of the total number in the whole country. North Carolina was right on the verge of entering the 21st century. It seemed to be turning the page on a past that wasn't always a past to be proud of.

Instead, it appears that North Carolina's Republican government is determined to dial it back past the 20th century all the way to the 19th. Draconian voting laws intended to keep people from the polls, cuts to education funding, a relentless assault on teachers—none of it, apparently, is enough to get the legislature's foot off the gas. More than most states, North Carolina seems intent on making sure that no one like Barack Obama—and by that I don't an African American man or one-term U.S. senator; I mean a Democrat—ever wins the state's electoral votes again. Apparently that means dismantling anything that was ever done to support the common good. 

And now comes this: news of another bill circulating in the legislature (Rebecca Schuman at Slate has already said most of what needs to be said about this, but I couldn't help piling on) that would require all professors in the state's public universities to teach eight classes per year. I'm not just whistling Dixie when I say this is a terrible idea that, if it becomes law, would have far-reaching consequences. This bill would not bring integrity to the state's university system, as its sponsors claim; it would water that system down, make it worse, put it on uneven footing with private colleges and universities, and drive those pesky college professors—who, if you didn't know it already, don't tend to vote for Republicans—all the way out of North Carolina for good. At the very least, it would get them off the payroll. As Jay Schalin, of the conservative Pope Center on HIgher Education Policy, put it: "The university system is not a jobs program for academics, and whether a bill reduces or increases the number of jobs is irrelevant." Did you know North Carolina Republicans were job killers, not job creators? 

And kill jobs is what this bill would do—not just the ones held by those troublesome professors, but the ones created by their research—even as it eviscerated the state's public system of higher education. Competitive universities—the ones that value skills like the ability to solve problems, do research, engage with the wider public about issues that matter to the wider public—will gobble up North Carolina's castaways and reap the benefits of this backwards thinking. That will, in turn, deny students at North Carolina's public colleges and universities access to the knowledge and expertise these professors bring to their work. This is yet another symptom of the mistaken idea that education is simply a commodity to be passed from one person to the next and then credentialed. We've already learned everything we need to learn about how the world works, so the thinking goes. Teachers have that knowledge, students don't; the goal is to get it from the teachers to the students in the most efficient way possible. Why stop at an 8 course teaching load? Why not 10? 12? Public colleges really should be more like public high schools anyway.

Maybe I'm wrong to suggest that all of this is just reactionary politics on steroids—is it really possible that Barack Obama scared them that much?—but, then, what other conclusions can we draw? Our politics now, as much as ever, seem stuck in a cycle of action and reaction with no larger principles, other than rhetorical ones, guiding the decisions that are made about public policy. If there is a coordinated vision being advanced by anyone it's a deeply regressive one and education, without a doubt, is caught in this vortex. Education is a public good that must necessarily be financed and supported with substantial public investments of time and money, but all of our solutions these days seem to revolve around privatizing it, restricting access to it, demeaning the people who provide it, and tightening the state's grip on how it gets provided. The state and the public, we ought to try to remember, are not always the same thing. But private interests aren't always synonymous with public ones, either.

This has implications for the future of K-12 policy as well. Sometimes we think the real battle for the heart and soul of public education is happening in our K-12 schools, and mostly that's true. But the pressure on public education is coming from both ends, and all sides. It's in our elementary schools, where a relentless focus on reading and math has displaced social studies and science, denying children the opportunity to begin exploring our world and the social institutions we have created and sending them the crystal clear message that school is all about picking up a credential and very little else. This, in turn, sends the message that investment in public education is an unnecessary and wasteful expense that must be managed very carefully, because investment in public life is too.

Our public universities may be fading away even more quickly. Esteemed public institutions like the University of Virginia, Penn State, and my own alma mater, William & Mary, have sought flexibility from state regulations in recent years, pursuing a special kind of "charter" status that will gradually make them more like private institutions than public ones, if they aren't already. We all lose when that access is cut off. For all the talk of spiraling college costs and their likely impact on the future of higher education, not enough seems to be said about protecting our shared investment in affordable public colleges and universities. Instead, it seems, the only "real" solution is to take classes online or skip college altogether. We're being told to abandon ship before even taking the time to verify the nature of its leaks.

This makes us all poorer. We don't always do ourselves a lot of favors in higher education, but much of what we do has been demonized and exploited by people with a political axe to grind. Teachers in K-12 schools should be able to relate. Just as we turned on them after A Nation at Risk, the public has now been led to believe that the people working in our colleges and universities are to blame for all of their apparent failures. Their intransigence, their stubbornness, their greed—that's what's holding us back, we're told. We really should just put them to work, or get rid of them.

I can't help thinking that this is all an elaborate political scam. In much the same way that A Nation at Risk provided the cover necessary to produce an assault on K-12 education, Academically Adrift and other treatises of its ilk have provided the same cover now for opponents of higher ed, even if that wasn't what their authors intended. To be sure, we could do a better job of encouraging professors who do research to spend more time teaching, and there is much to be done to improve the working conditions of contingent teaching faculty; maybe a dual-track employment system in our larger universities is not a bad idea, though it would mean a larger investment in public education, not a smaller one.

But sacrificing research in the name of content delivery does none of us any good, except for the people whose political livelihoods depend on not having people do research to uncover the questionable motives that lie behind their actions. After all, an ill-informed electorate is easily manipulated. Personally, I prefer education to ignorance—and vigilance to complacency. Fights over testing and common core standards and tenure are just the tip of the iceberg. Lurking below the surface is an assault on the very idea of public education that we should be much more concerned about.

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