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North Carolina Becomes the Front Line of a Brutal Corporate Assault on Education Raging in America

The final Moral Monday protest of 2013 in Raleigh focused on the future of schools in a once-progressive state.

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Barbara Parramore, 81, began her education career in Raleigh in 1954, serving as a teacher, principal and then NC State professor until her retirement in 1996. Though her career began during Jim Crow, Parramore says the future of education in the state looks bleaker now than at any time she remembers in the past. This is why on May 20, she committed civil disobedience alongside other protesters and suffered arrest (an experience she chronicled for AlterNet).

Harnett County principal Angela Hill and teacher Gary Hill (husband and wife) share Parramore’s dreary assessment. Angela Hill, an educator of 12 years, tells AlterNet that finding and hiring good teachers is becoming more difficult. “Educators in North Carolina never wanted to go to South Carolina before, but now we have teachers and principals who are beginning to look for jobs there.”

Seventeen-year teaching veteran Gary Hill, meanwhile, discusses the inequitable system that vouchers and under-regulated charter schools will create. He also worries that dismantling pay raises for graduate education will diminish incentives for teachers to acquire greater expertise.

Retired Lenoir County public school teacher Lendell Wayne, who taught for 33 and a half years, says the changes “will be disastrous for the students of North Carolina. The very future of our children depends on every person who took time out to come to Moral Monday and take part in this struggle.” She says the policies will benefit an already privileged minority of students while leaving the masses in the dust, and she strongly opposes the use of her tax dollars to fund private school tuition.

North Carolina’s Historic Resistance to For-Profit Education

In Chicago, Mayor Emanuel has made fighting the Chicago Teachers Union—and replacing so-called “failed schools” with charters managed by for-profit companies—a central component of his program for the city. But North Carolina’s education landscape did not look much like that of Chicago in 2010 when the GOP took power. Because of North Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state and its generations-long suppression of labor organizing, the NCAE never had nearly as much leverage in negotiations as the Chicago Teachers Union.

But the story isn’t quite so simple. While North Carolina labor policy has always been backward, the state has served as an example of progressive approaches to education policy in other ways. During the late 1940s, Parramore says, the public became more aware that education opportunities for white and black students should be equalized. So an initiative to build better facilities for black schools meant that some were in better condition than white schools. In 1948, schools began paying equal salaries to white and black teachers, also a forward-thinking initiative for its time.

That the state government never really blocked challenges to Jim Crow made NC an unusual case. Over decades, the state—and especially the cities—developed a culture that was enthusiastic about promoting educational equity and student diversity. This is why many large school systems emerged during the 1970s and 1980s; the urban/suburban mix in places like Wake County allowed educational resources to be distributed equitably across large, diverse school districts.

While the populism that always inflected state education policy never quite helped unions, it did render the state more suspicious of the large-scale corporate reforms further along in other states. Policies that advanced disparity were looked on with disdain among both Democrats and some Republicans. Even former Wake County school board chair Bill Fletcher, a Christian conservative who pushed for abstinence-only education policies in the 1990s, backed Wake’s popular diversity policy. Wake was one of the South’s most successful turnarounds from the days of Jim Crow. Such idealism could be found virtually nowhere else in the U.S., not even in the Northeast’s highly segregated schools.