Commentary

Spellings critics: Partisan ideologue is unfit to lead UNC

[Editor’s note: Protesters, demanding reconsideration of the UNC Board of Governors’ recent decision to name Margaret Spellings as UNC system President, are expected to demonstrate at today’s board meeting. The following essay in support of the protest was written by frequent N.C. Policy Watch contributor Michael C. Behrent, a Professor at Appalachian State, and Ralph Wilson, a researcher at the higher education advocacy group UnKoch My Campus.]

Margaret Spellings: It’s all about the party
By Michael C. Behrent and Ralph Wilson

In late November, incoming UNC president Margaret Spellings made a trip to North Carolina, during which she tried to quell some of the outrage her record and secretive appointment by the UNC Board of Governors has triggered. She told the News and Observer that she had learned from her experience as President George W. Bush’s Education Secretary that public service “has to be about the ideas and the ideals, as opposed to party.”

Yet as more facts emerge about Spellings’ record, it becomes increasingly apparent that her “ideas and ideals” have always been first and foremost those of her party and its ideological agenda. For over a decade, she has worked tirelessly to end public education as we know it, be it through privatization, high-stakes testing, the imposition of a right-wing ideology on the school system and profiteering off of student debt.

True, she recently informed the News and Observer that she would resign at the year’s end from her position on the advisory board of Ceannate, a for-profit college loan company. But her political connections to movements to privatize public education, deny climate change, and dictate school curricular changes reflective of her own ideological agenda make her unfit to serve at the helm of UNC, a system that has long exemplified this country’s ideals of accessible, high-quality public education serving the common good.

Consider these facts:

As Bush’s Education Secretary, Spellings buried a study commissioned by her own Department that found that public schools performed as well as, if not better than, private schools. This finding, in conflict with the Bush administration’s pro-charter school/pro-privatization reform agenda, went completely unreported by Spellings’ office as it prepared to make $100 million dollars in school vouchers available under the No Child Left Behind Act. When confronted about the lack of disclosure, Spellings claimed that it was “was overlooked in [an] internal memo.” She later sent NPR a statement rejecting the findings: “This study, while it does contain noteworthy findings, it is an academic comparison of averages, and does not provide families the tools to make real world choices about their children’s education.”

Though Spellings has said little in public about her own views on environmental policy, she has close political and financial ties to influential climate change deniers. In 2010, Spellings became President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The Chamber of Commerce, notorious for its climate denial, is intimately tied to the political machinations of Charles Koch’s network of donors, called the Freedom Partners. For instance, leaked information from Koch’s secret donor summits

in June 2010 revealed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Chief Operating Officer, David Chavern, not only attended the meetings, but made presentations. Other presenters included the President of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, and key figures at the Mercatus Center, a Koch-funded think tank at George Mason University. Just one month later, Spellings introduced Mercatus scholars at an event co-sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the American Enterprise Institute. Given the Board of Governors’ politicized decision to shut down East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity (along with two other centers) in February, Spellings’ close ties to climate deniers is cause for serious concern.

Spellings has been closely connected to efforts to change school curricula along ideological lines. In 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Campaign for Free Enterprise sponsored the U.S. Free Enterprise Education Act, a piece of “model legislation” that would require high school students to take a course designed to inculcate the Chamber’s ideology. Specifically, this law would, according to the Chamber’s own press release, “require high school students take and pass a one semester stand-alone free enterprise course to receive a high school diploma or certificate.” Spellings explicitly oversaw the Chamber’s Campaign for Free Enterprise, describing her role at the Chamber as “overseeing and creating new initiatives to drive effective education and workforce training reform.” In light of Western Carolina University’s recent decision to open a Center for the Study of Free Enterprise funded by the Charles Koch Foundation despite serious faculty reservations about its cost, immunity from peer review, and threat to academic freedom, Spellings’ support for such ideological tampering with school curricula is troubling.

A rising tide of students and faculty in the UNC system, as well as North Carolinians concerned with the future of public education in their state, are making the case that, given Margaret Spellings’ record and connections, the Board of Governors must rescind her appointment as UNC president. On Friday, December 11, Faculty Forward North Carolina, a coalition of concerned UNC professors and students, will be making precisely this point at a demonstration coinciding with a Board of Governors meeting. North Carolina deserves better than Margaret Spellings.

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