A who’s who of North Carolina’s corporate establishment has formed a new group that aims to be an assertive voice on public education in the state.
Business for Education Success and Transformation North Carolina, or BEST NC, has been meeting quietly behind the scenes for months. So far it counts 54 business executives as its members, and that number is expected to grow to 75. Board members include Ann Goodnight of SAS; Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting; Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina; Robert Niblock, CEO of Lowe’s; and Brad Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
The group has launched a search for a CEO and plans to meet with Gov. Pat McCrory next month. It has so far held small gatherings with school superintendents and has recruited volunteer experts from across the nation.
Walter McDowell of Winston-Salem, a retired Wachovia executive, is chairman of the group, which he said is geographically and politically diverse. BEST NC will advocate solutions from preschool to public schools to community colleges and universities.
“We believe that we need stronger outcomes in public education. There are too many kids who are not reading at grade level,” McDowell said. “We just want to play a role, and we want to lift the children of North Carolina and public education to a better place. We think that stronger public education outcomes will accelerate job growth and spur economic development.”
The group has not hammered out specific proposals, but it supports early childhood education and Common Core, the tougher standards in math and English adopted by North Carolina and most other states.
Nonpartisan in a partisan time
The focus will not be on lobbying, McDowell said, and the group won’t endorse candidates or make political contributions. It aims to be nonpartisan, he said.
That could be a tall order at a time of divisive politics and dramatic change for education. The legislature this year approved vouchers that will give parents taxpayer dollars to send children to private schools. Republican-led initiatives included an end to teacher tenure and salary supplements for teachers who earned master’s degrees, while setting the stage for a move to merit pay. Class size limits in lower grades were eliminated.
Teachers got no raise, at a time when North Carolina teacher pay ranks 46th in the nation and per-pupil spending is near the bottom among the states.
The changes angered teachers, who marched on the legislature and held “walk-in” protests at schools earlier this month.
Goodnight, a Republican, blasted the Republican actions in a July letter to the editor to The News & Observer.
“We are knowingly under-investing in our pre-K-12, community college and university students; in our teachers; and in innovative new approaches to learning,” she wrote. “This budget is an embarrassment in its lack of investment in the skills and competitiveness of its people. This is a grievous mistake.”
Business support for education was strong during the tenure of former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, but that focus has since waned. Though the North Carolina Chamber has education and talent supply as one of four pillars of its “Vision 2030” agenda, its focus lately has been on tax cuts.
“What Hunt did so well is he had that way of bringing everybody to the table,” said Ann McColl, general counsel of the N.C. Association of Educators, the teacher association. “We don’t really have that kind of convener right now.”
She predicted there will be lightning-rod issues such as alternative or merit pay plans and that the business community won’t see that the same way teachers do.
“Those are conversations to be had, but I think business support for public education right now is crucial, so I’m happy that they’re there,” she said.
The group’s voice will no doubt be heard, McColl said. “They have an ability to carry a message that some groups within the public school community can’t. ... I think it’s a great time for a business group to be saying public schools matter.”
A quieter business voice
Phil Kirk, former head of the state’s chamber group and former chairman of the State Board of Education, said he had noticed that business has had a quieter voice on education issues in recent years. He attributes it to several developments.
One, he said, is that corporate mergers of banks and other companies meant that CEOs were increasingly from out-of-state, with little history or commitment to education in North Carolina. Mid-level managers, who often took active roles in local education, were laid off during the recession.
“I think all those things have had a cumulative effect, and a lot of it is because of the absence of Gov. Hunt from the governor’s office,” Kirk said.
The chamber has supported Common Core, to its credit, Kirk said, but “they don’t have a singular focus on education.”
In an emailed statement Friday, Lew Ebert, president and CEO of the chamber, said, “Education is a top priority as we continue our effort to get North Carolinians back to work.”
Wilson, treasurer of the chamber board and former chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, said a number of business leaders had come to the conclusion that a united business voice on education had dissipated over time. “It wasn’t a targeted energy,” he said.
Other states have had recent success with business coalition groups. One, Wilson said, is the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE. Formed in 2009 by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, a Republican, the group held sessions across the state to get input. It then drafted a road map for improvements in education with more than 60 recommendations.
There were only two overarching goals, said David Mansouri, SCORE’s director of advocacy and communication. One was that every student graduates high school prepared for college or career. The other was that Tennessee be the fastest-improving state in the nation.
More than 50 of the recommendations were implemented, Mansouri said, and the effort is already bearing fruit. Earlier this month, Tennessee made the largest gains in the nation on fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Recently, the Republican governor and the Democratic former governor appeared together to tout the results.
Mansouri said the strategy was “being totally focused on what’s best for kids” and on “having everyone at the table in a collaborative way to make sure you’re moving forward in the best interests of students.”
The leader of SCORE came earlier this year to talk with North Carolina’s nascent business group, Wilson said.
Not ‘throwing a lot of money’
BEST NC is not an effort to push back on the reforms enacted in the legislature, its leaders said. The group would like to see targeted, strategic investments, McDowell said. But, he added, “We do not believe throwing a lot of money at public education is the answer.”
Wilson described the approach as solution-oriented, an effort “to create a lab environment to bring forth data and evidence on what works and what works best.”
The group has already met with McCrory’s education adviser, Eric Guckian.
“The more that we can link business and the economy to education, I think the better off we’re going to be as a state and as a country,” Guckian said. “It’s a bipartisan effort, and I think this is a bipartisan issue.”
McCrory has asked Guckian to come up with a strategy for improving teacher compensation. He’s working on a number of ideas but cautioned that it will be a long-term strategy.
June Atkinson, superintendent of public instruction, said the BEST NC group sees education as integral to business success.
“I believe that business people, especially our influential CEOs, recognize that you have to treat your workforce with respect and you have to pay your workforce a competitive wage,” she said. “I am optimistic that they will focus on the importance of having great teachers.”
Wilson said a vocal business presence is needed now.
“The data would suggest we are falling behind,” he said. “We need to have an important and substantial conversation about how to turn that around.”
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