As North Carolina Grows, Public Education Shifts

Jan 24, 2014

Major changes are happening in public education in North Carolina.

Last year, the legislature passed laws that did away with teacher tenure, ended extra pay for teachers who earn master’s degrees and created a voucher system for low-income students.

Analysts who watch education policy say no other state made more changes that affect schools in 2013 than North Carolina did.

Dave DeWitt, who covers education for WUNC, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young at the WUNC studio at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh to discuss why that happened and the effect it’s had.


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It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

And let's get back to Robin Young in Raleigh, North Carolina, another person I don't think is going to be going to the Super Bowl, right, Robin? You don't have tickets?



What? This is news. I'm shocked. No, I'm not.


HOBSON: Well, where are you, by the way.

YOUNG: But you know what, I'd rather go to some basketball, and I'm in the best place for it. I'm at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences here in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the WUNC satellite studios. It is freezing here. But one thing that is always hot in North Carolina: college basketball.


BOB WISCHUSEN: It's a 12-2 Blue Devils run and Miami just can't score. Another takeaway, turnover number eight. What a...

YOUNG: ESPN on the call last night the Duke Blue Devils from Durham pounded Miami, 67-46. Now, the hometown team here in Raleigh is North Carolina State. They play host to Georgia Tech on Sunday over in Chapel Hill. The University of North Carolina Tar Heels face South Carolina's Clemson, which has not beat UNC since the Paleozoic Era. I think it's - they're something like 0-56, although they say that might change this weekend.

But right now, UNC is preoccupied with something else as well. We want to take a look at education. UNC is in the midst of an athlete scandal: bogus courses, four athletes and now an advisor claiming athletes are functionally - some of them functionally illiterate. (Unintelligible) the public schools. There was a federal complaint filed this week here in Wade County against the school system and local police departments. Parents and teachers claiming police are criminalizing minor behavior like stealing paper from recycling bin. This is a claim that is - that there's a school-to-prison pipeline. We've reported on that.

And there are also debates in North Carolina over charters schools and teacher salaries, which is why Dave DeWitt is a busy guy. He covers education for WUNC. He joins us at their studio at the Museum of Natural Sciences. Dave, start with the scandal at UNC and then this federal complaint from the public schools. How - tell us about both, how they're reverberating.

DAVE DEWITT, BYLINE: Well, the scandal in UNC is sort of the latest chapter in a long sordid tale. It began years ago, seemingly, when some football players were deemed to have taken some things from agents, some money and some flights and things. And in their course of investigating all of that, they came through and figured out that there were some no-show, bogus classes in one of the academic departments that enrolled about half - that half of the students that were involved in those classes were student athletes. So there were some charges that these student athletes were steered into these classes because they were, obviously, easy. They were no-show classes. Grades were changed. The department chair ended up losing his job.

And now, the latest chapter in that is that someone has come forward, a former tutor who still works at the university, named Mary Willingham, has charged that some of the students she worked with, a decent percentage, student athletes, are functionally illiterate, were functionally illiterate, should never have been admitted into the university, had really no chance of earning a degree and were only there because they were basketball players or football players.

UNC has come back and vehemently denied this. They say that Mary Willingham's research, which she uses to back up some of these claims, is flawed, and they've removed her research capabilities now. So it's really a standoff between this one tutor who still works at the university but no longer works with student athletes and the university who claims that these students were not nearly as bad of students as she said they were.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, it's still - I mean, it's - and the bogus courses, we - this is a claim that's throughout the country, that there are student athletes pushing the system but courses that really even exist. That's something there. Now go over to Wade County, though, to the schools and this charge that - and we hear this in other schools as well - that schools are increasingly using police to do what schools used to do in disciplining kids.

DEWITT: Well, you know, because of what's happened recently across the country, we're seeing more police and more...

YOUNG: Sure.

DEWITT: officers on high school campuses. And what's happened in Wade County, according to this complaint that's filed by federal - some civil rights groups here in the area - they're saying that students are being arrested in misdemeanor charges that often don't end up panning out into actual cases for things that you mentioned, recycling bin, picking paper out of the recycling bin.

There was a well-known water balloon fight at a local high school here where a lot of students were arrested on these misdemeanor charges. And the civil rights group points out that 75 percent of the students who were arrested on misdemeanor chargers are African-American. Here in Wade County, about 25 percent of the student body is African-American. They're saying that that is wrong. They want the federal government to look into this case, so they filed this federal rights complaint.

YOUNG: OK. So you got two stories there. But overarching, talk about teachers, because people who watch education policy say North Carolina made more changes that affect schools than any other state in the country last year. Give us a little overview. Let's talk teachers.

DEWITT: Well, what happened about a year ago, the state elected a Republican governor and the Republican legislature, which had been in place for a couple of years, had the majority, but they can never get anything pass the Democratic governor who vetoed a lot of their school changes they wanted to make.

Well, now when the entire state went Republican, they had an opportunity to make some real significant changes and they really did. As you mentioned, policy watchers from across the country have said more education changes come in one year in North Carolina than anywhere else in the past year.

YOUNG: Ending teacher tenure, ending extra pay for teachers who earn master's degrees.

DEWITT: Yeah. Cutting funding for teacher assistants, instituting a voucher program, really a wide slate of things. Many of these affect teachers directly. Teachers have not - have only had one raise here in the last five years. North Carolina teachers' salaries used to be in the middle of the pack, used to be about the national average. Now they're 46th in the country. Much higher salaries are offered by our neighbors, Virginia and South Carolina.

So teachers are reacting to all of these things, the loss of teacher tenure and other things, and they're marching here in the state capitol. They're holding walk-ins in front of their schools. They're quite angry.

YOUNG: Well - and your governor, Pat McCrory, says he understands this, that there hasn't been a raise in five or six years. It's unacceptable. He's saying this now. And he's saying he's going to get teacher raises done this year. But you've got a legislature that doesn't seem inclined to do that.

DEWITT: That's right. The State Senate is led by a man named Phil Berger who's been there for about a decade and a half, but has just recently, with the Republican resurgence, taken over the legislature and the State Senate. And he's the most powerful force in education change in North Carolina. He hasn't seen fit to really include the governor and a whole lot of things to this point. This is his education agenda. He's really - he says he's really interested in returning some control back to the local school districts here in North Carolina, as in many Southern states.

The state really controls a lot of education policy. Individual districts don't have a lot of things to - they could add supplement salary to teachers, but they don't set the salary structure for their teachers. So that means that the state has a lot of control. Phil Berger is the person who's done a lot of these things, and they have veto proof, majorities in both legislature. So what happens is even if Governor McCrory wants to do some things differently, oftentimes he's being left out of the loop.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, boy, there are so many other things to talk about. So many listeners want us to talk about charter schools. Guess what? We'll have to have you come back to do that.

DEWITT: My pleasure.

YOUNG: We'll do that. Dave DeWitt, he covers education for WUNC. By the way, tweets @DaveDewitt. Dave, thanks so much.

DEWITT: My pleasure.

YOUNG: And we couldn't resist. Let's have a little of Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, founders of the North Carolina-based group, the dB's. Their song: "Here and Now" on the record of the same name. It's HERE AND NOW.


THE DB'S: (Singing) Right here and now, right here and now. Right here and now, right here and now... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.