Higher ed advocate: Conservative commentator’s call for radical UNC System overhaul is off-base

Some folks measure the value of higher education solely by how much its graduates make.

Most of us know there’s a lot more to it.

In a column last week, John Hood of the John Locke Foundation contends that North Carolinians don’t receive an adequate return on what he calls a “relatively large” investment in the University of North Carolina System.

In a classic example of viewing education as a private rather than public good, Hood cites a Texas-based outfit that measures return on investment only by comparing the earnings of graduates. By its measure, the University of South Dakota ranks best in the country in lifetime returns.

Go Coyotes!

He also cites a report from the James G. Martin Center that recommends phasing out programs in law, pharmacy, dentistry and social work at UNC-Chapel Hill and law at NC Central University, as well as fine-arts degrees and language, psychology and liberal-arts degrees at other campuses.

Regarding such programs, even Hood acknowledges “most of the students who enter them know very well their chosen careers are unlikely to be lucrative. They have chosen those careers because they value other forms of compensation more — personal fulfillment, a calling to help others, or a desire to live and work in a particular kind of community.”

He goes on to suggest they can be reduced to two- or three-year degrees, without explaining how.

Hood conveniently omits the state constitution’s mandate to provide North Carolinians with a college education for “as far as practicable … free of expense.”

And to contend that the state doesn’t see substantial return on investment from its investment in the UNC System is simply absurd.

As UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens – an acknowledged conservative himself – laid out in a November column, the state gets more than its money’s worth for the $540 million a year it invests in UNC-Chapel Hill.

“The first thing our faculty and staff do is multiply the money by raising $1.16 billion more dollars in externally-funded research, an amount that places UNC in the top 10 federally-funded research universities in the US, higher than Harvard, MIT, or UCLA. Research at UNC develops new cancer therapies, supports highway safety, helps understand the effect of storm surges on the nation’s coastlines, and even discovers new exoplanets. Research money employs about 9,500 people in 90 counties of North Carolina, and generates $90 million in purchases from 6,500 businesses in 95 of our counties,” Clemens wrote.

Not to mention that UNC grad Kizzmekia Corbett helped develop the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19.

That’s not a bad return on investment – or service to mankind.

The university collects over $400 million in tuition from 30,000 students – some portion comes from outside the state, while the rest keeps North Carolina students at home “while providing the #1 best bargain in higher education for the student from North Carolina,” Clemens wrote.

Those students come from 98 North Carolina counties, 40% of them from rural areas.

“Eighteen percent of these students will be the first in their families to graduate from college. They will become the physicians, lawyers, artists, historians, business executives, government leaders, engineers, and teachers of tomorrow. They will emerge with a great education, a diploma from one of the top five ranked public universities, and well-prepared to be the workforce of the future that will attract new industries to North Carolina,” Clemens wrote.

As Winston-Salem businessman Don Flow puts it, “The UNC System is the most important institution for creating economic wealth in North Carolina.” The UNC System granted more than 62,000 degrees last year to graduates who will help fuel North Carolina’s booming economy.

Inventions from UNC-Chapel Hill have led to formation of at least 274 NC companies, Clemens wrote.

“These companies employ over 9,000 North Carolina citizens and generate $14 billion in annual revenue in our state. Together with UNC’s affiliated enterprise, UNC Health, itself a $4B enterprise, these companies and our campus research operations represent 2.9% of the state’s gross domestic product. The estimated tax revenue from this slice of our economy is more than the $540 million in appropriations allocated to us…

“Even though it sounds like a deal that is too good to be true, the public employees of the first and most public university in the US deliver on this promise year after year. It’s an investment the people of North Carolina can make with confidence,” Clemens concluded.11

The UNC System can always improve, of course. But please, don’t try to say there’s not enough ROI on the state’s investment.

David Rice is the executive director of the group Higher Ed Works, which first published this commentary.

Teachers would get $60K minimum salary under bill in Congress making grants to states

State Superintendent would lead an elected State Board of Education under House GOP proposal

Rep. Hugh Blackwell (foreground) speaks at a House committee meeting in January 2022.

Some state Board of Education (SBE) members would be elected, and the state superintendent would chair the SBE under House Bill 17, which was filed in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Republican from Burke County, who has frequently stated his preference for an elected state board that would be led by the state superintendent.

“In that way, you don’t end up with this sort of double-headed situation that we’ve got currently,” Blackwell said a year ago.

Blackwell is a co-chair of the House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future. The committee has spent the past year traveling across the state, holding public hearings and studying ways to reinvent North Carolina’s system of public education.

The two-pronged approach to governing the state’s public schools to which Blackwell referred has sometimes led to conflict between the state superintendent and the state board.

A power grab by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2016 led to a lengthy legal battle that ended with the state Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of then-House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to the superintendent.

The chair of the state board can set the board’s agenda and influence policy decisions. Superintendent Catherine Truitt, for example, is a Republican and her positions don’t always align with state board members appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Under HB 17, all state board members except Council of State appointees – the lieutenant governor and state treasurer – would be elected from districts established by the General Assembly. The governor would appoint members to fill board vacancies.

Changing how the state board is seated would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment. The bill calls for the amendment to be placed on the Nov. 5, 2024 ballot, which includes the presidential election.

North Carolina now elects a state superintendent every four years who acts as the secretary and chief administrative officer of the state board. The superintendent administers all “needed rules and regulations” adopted by the State Board through the NC Department of Public Instruction.

Meanwhile, the state board is led by one of 11 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. It is required by the state constitution to “supervise and administer” the public schools and funding “provided for its support.” The board also makes “rules and regulations” by which the public schools are governed.

RAND report: Teachers feel pressure of bans that restrict how they can discuss race and gender in classrooms

A kindergarten teacher at Southside Ashpole instructs students. (Photo by Greg Childress)

Teachers are walking on “eggshells” due to restrictions on how they can discuss race and gender in classrooms, according to a new RAND Corporation study released Wednesday.

A quarter of teachers reported that restrictions on discussing race and gender have influenced their choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices, the researchers found.

“I am extremely cautious,” one elementary school teacher told researchers. “Not because of my school district but because of the parents and their social media reactions. They can ruin a teacher’s reputation in a single post.”

According to the report, 17 states had passed policies restricting how teachers can address topics related to race, gender, and “divisive concepts” in the classroom by last spring.

Researchers conducted a nationally representative survey of about 8,000 public school teachers in April and May 2022 to explore how teachers were responding to legal limits on how teachers can discuss race- and gender-related topics.

The report is titled “Walking on Eggshells—Teachers’ Responses to Classroom Limitations on Race- or Gender-Related Topics.” Click this link to read the full report.

The report found that teachers felt limited in how they can talk about gender and race and other tough topics due to state-and district-level bans.

Florida, for example, passed a law that bans LGBTQ instruction in early grades. North Carolina’s Republican-led state Senate passed its version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that would require schools to tell parents if their children want to change their pronouns and prohibit teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3. The House did not vote on the bill. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, likely would have vetoed the bill had it arrived on his desk.

Teachers also reported feeling pressure from school and district leaders and family and community members to limit discussions about race, sexual orientation and gender identity.

“One clear implication of our data is that shifts in formal policy at the state or local level alone will not lead to the abatement of these limitations on classroom instruction,” the researchers said. “Instead, our findings suggest that some parents and families—particularly those of students in majority-white and more-affluent schools—play a significant role in exerting pressure on teachers directly and also indirectly by voicing their concerns to more-formal sources of authority, such as school boards and school and district administrators.”

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Teachers reported that state-level limitations on how kindergarten through grade 12 public school teachers can address topics related to race or gender were more common than district-level limitations.
  • Roughly one-quarter of teachers reported not knowing whether they were subject to restrictions on how they can address topics related to race or gender, and only 30 percent of teachers in states with restrictions reported them as being in place.
  • About one-quarter of teachers reported that limitations placed on how teachers can address topics related to race or gender have influenced their choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices.
  • Some teachers were more likely to be aware of or influenced by these limitations, including teachers in states with limitations, teachers of color, high school teachers, teachers serving suburban schools, and teachers more likely to encounter race- or gender-related topics in their subjects.
  • Restrictions infringed on teachers’ autonomy by constraining the topics they could address and their choice of instructional materials and discussion topics.
  • Limitations stemmed from sources that have formal policymaking authority, such as states and districts, and other sources that have informal authority, such as families and communities, but teachers most commonly pointed to parents and families as sources of the limitations they experienced.
  • Teachers perceived that limitations placed on how they can address race- or gender-related topics negatively affected their working conditions, and they worried about limitations’ consequences for student learning.
  • Teachers’ responses to enacted limitations ran the gamut from resistance to changing their instructional practices to align with restrictions.

Why are School Choice Week’s loudest supporters opposed to expanding school choice?

School choice week is upon us once again. Groups of lawmakers, advocates, and school leaders will praise General Assembly leadership for dramatically expanding school choice over the past decade. They will thank legislative leaders for increasing the number of charter schools and creating voucher programs that now give families earning over $100,000 per year over $5,500 for private school tuition.

Their praise will focus on the increasing number of students receiving vouchers and attending charter schools. They will celebrate the fact that the number of students in traditional, inclusive public schools has fallen since 2016, while the number of students attending charter schools or receiving vouchers has shot up. Over this period, traditional public school enrollment has fallen by 62,579 students, while charter enrollments have increased by 73,694. An additional 23,200 students are receiving vouchers since 2016.

While these enrollment changes will be lauded, astute observers will notice something important: little attention, if any, will be given to how these students are faring in their nontraditional school settings. That’s no accident, as traditional, inclusive public schools continue to outperform charter and voucher schools.

North Carolina’s traditional inclusive public schools are doing better than schools in the charter sector when it comes to bouncing back from the effects of the pandemic. This is the continuation of a trend. Traditional public schools in North Carolina continue to provide larger annual academic gains for their students than charter schools. In the most recent year, 71 percent of traditional public schools met or exceeded growth expectations, compared to just 63 percent of charter schools.

No such comparisons exist between traditional public school students and voucher students. This is by design. Legislative leaders have rejected efforts to examine whether voucher students are better off academically after leaving the traditional, inclusive public school system. Most likely, they don’t want to know just how bad it is. Read more