An intellectual death in the family

Aug. 06, 2013 @ 12:48 PM

After decades of touting North Carolina as a model of state governance, I am sad to say that it has caught up with Alabama in a race to the bottom.

"North Carolina was once considered a beacon of farsightedness in the South ... In a few short months Republicans have begun to dismantle a reputation that took years to build," a New York Times editorial concluded.

A Republican "super majority," like Alabama's, has drastically cut the number of people allowed to vote, cut the education budget by one-half billion dollars, installed the failed school-voucher policy, threatened academic freedom and said, in effect, science is illegitimate.

Not since the Taliban blew up the centuries-old monuments to Afghan civilization has there been such an undoing of structures that made a state proud and effective.

I take this personally. I married into the family of a former governor, own a house here and have given readings and lectures based on a memoir in which I express gratitude for being a reporter in Raleigh early in my career, which gave me a touchstone for how states are supposed to work.

In the book, “In Love With Defeat,” I wrote, "North Carolina governors Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford were bookends of statesmanship on either side of George Wallace's energetic manipulation of popular anxiety and indignation."

Together they calmed the race issue, built and began to populate the economic and culturally enhancing Research Triangle Park and unified the state's research universities.

I could still make that claim in appearances in Asheville and Highlands, but I cannot say that the new Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and his Republican-majority Legislature have honored their own history.

North Carolina has been blessed with governors of both parties who were realistic and progressive, who were builders. That can't be said of McCrory who has signed a trainload of regressive and partisan legislation.

A yardstick of the North Carolina legislature's judgment -- not to say its IQ -- is Senate passage of a bill by a real estate broker, which outlaws use of data measuring sea levels by a panel of marine scientists, geologists and engineers.

Not legitimate, said Sen. Pat McElraft of a report from a panel of the Coastal Resources Commission focusing on coastal hazards. The Einsteins of the world now know where they stand in North Carolina.

The half-billion cut in the education budget means that the state is now spending less than it did in 2007 despite growth in the student population.

"This revenue loss isn't just a number on a piece of paper -- it means fewer teachers in more crowded classrooms, higher tuition rates and elevated debt load for families, scarcer economic development opportunities for distressed communities and longer waiting lists for senior services" claimed Alexandra Sirota, director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.

If Sirota's critique may seem a little too doleful, the legislature left no doubt how highly it regards academic freedom; teacher tenure was outlawed.

A national authority on education, Diane Ravitch, said discarding tenure "guarantees an end to academic freedom for teachers. Will any teacher dare to teach a controversial book or discuss evolution?"

More in anger than sorrow, Ravitch went on to say, "North Carolina was once hailed as one of the most progressive Southern states. Now its governor and both houses of the legislature are ... extremist in their determination to crush teachers and privatize public education."

As a final act the Legislature passed a bill drastically changing the state's voting laws. Requiring picture IDs is onerous enough -- eliminating thousands of poor, elderly and infirm, and residents of nursing homes whose licenses have long expired.

But the legislators went further making dozens of changes, which look more like they were written by a Republican campaign consultant than a serious legislative body.

The act takes care to eliminate from voter rolls any segment of the population which might have leaned more Democratic. For instance there are penalties for parents whose children vote in college towns such as Chapel Hill.

It has been a pleasure for me over the decades to write and speak of North Carolina as a model of governance, but I can't make that claim any more. It feels like an intellectual death in the family.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Anniston Star.