Joe Killian is the documentarian of UNC’s troubles. The NC Policy Watch reporter broke another probing story yesterday about political influence at our flagship school. Though the content it conveys pales in outrage to Trustees’ attack on Nikole Hannah-Jones, Killian’s piece is a reminder that the University of North Carolina has not reached the sunlight of relief from political meddling. In fact, UNC is only the most prominent–and most consequential–of the state’s institutions that have been attacked and undermined by a legislature bent on minimal government.
Drunk on the sweet elixir of long-sought power, Republican legislators in 2013 took as their task the complete elimination of numerous institutions. Anti-environment legislators targeted the state’s Green Business Fund. Aggrieved radicals abolished the North Carolina Rural Center and the Golden Leaf Foundation, both established by Democrats to pump a little vitality into ailing rural economies. Bob Rucho, who was considered, preposterously, a public-policy expert, nearly got his way in fully defunding the extraordinarily successful North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Then-governor Pat McCrory’s flippant explanation was that he wanted to “take another look” at state nonprofits. Whatever.
Public schools were likewise a target. The first Republican fiscal blueprint under Phil Berger and Thom Tillis cut $650 million from the state k-12 education budget. Thousands of teachers lost their jobs and funding for instructional supplies was reduced by 50%, never to recover. Going further, Berger cut several thousand more teaching assistants from the public payroll as part of his effort to carve out fiscal room for the largest regressive tax cut in North Carolina history. This reduction was especially cruel and boneheaded because the same Senate boss insisted every child reach an arbitrary reading standard by third grade or be held back, regardless of the judgment of their teachers.
The immiseration of public schools has become one of the NCGOP’s signature policies. From intellectuals at the John Locke Foundation to the histrionic lieutenant governor, state Republicans sing hosannas to the wonders of “school choice.” An epic deluge of charter schools has hit the state–many of them sketchy and privately run. Republicans are frankly obsessed with growing their private-school voucher program. Despite claims that “school-choice” funds merely follow individual students out of public schools and into charters or private academies, research by Helen Ladd has found that North Carolina’s educational Wild West has reduced the amount of funding left for traditional schools to educate the students left behind, who are disproportionately Black, Brown, and poor.
On the whole, the legacy of the NCGOP legislature to date has been to destroy successful institutions. UNC was one of the most esteemed public universities in the country; no more. North Carolina public schools were making progress and improving their test scores; those scores are now heading into decline. Jim Hunt’s Hamiltonian tradition of progressive economic development helped create a dynamic economy that the backwaters of the Deep South could not dream of domiciling. Now, after ten years of small government, North Carolina has become a state trapped in stagnation, and widely reviled.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.