North Carolina Governor Pat McRory last week signed the $21 billion conservative dream budget into law, and it is already getting enormous pushback, especially from teachers’ unions and their supporters.One of the reforms in particular seems like a good idea to us: a provision that ends teacher tenure. Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, DC, a pro-voucher education think-tank, offered some blunt but sensible words:
“Tenure is an obsolete notion in almost all of America these days except for educational institutions and sometimes other civil service jobs with the government. I personally think it’s just insane for anybody at age 25 or 26 to be given a lifetime job unrelated to their future performance,” Finn said“People deserve due process, multi-year contracts if they are good at what they do. If they aren’t, why does the state have an obligation to keep handing them a paycheck?” he said.
We’re not anti-teacher here at Via Meadia—quite the contrary. But teacher tenure, like many other features of the bureaucratized blue model, is a serious impediment to meaningful change in education. It forestalls the practice of evaluating teachers based on performance, a key means of torquing and improving the system overall. And quite frankly, this outdated model is holding the best teachers back from achieving their full potential.As for the other elements of North Carolina’s plan, they are ambitious, to say the least, pairing a $20 million school voucher program with $482 million in cuts to education over two years. As we did with Louisiana and Kansas, we will withhold judgment on the wisdom of the program as a whole until we see how things pan out.On the one hand, we’re glad for the ‘laboratories of democracy’ that the 5o states afford us. Large GOP gains in statehouses and governors’ mansions suggest public support for these kinds of bold experiments in many places—just as Democratic control in states like California and Illinois speaks to a desire in those states to stay on the blue highway. As red states experiment and blue states double down, their policies’ eventual success or failure will likely indicate some important trends in national politics in the years ahead. Our eyes are peeled.But it’s also worth keeping in mind some historical context: North Carolina’s first modern experiment in public education was put together by “New South” progressives like Josephus Daniels. Daniels, who went on to serve as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy in World War I, was a key figure in breaking black political power in the state in 1900.Let’s hope that kind of troubling historical concordance does not play out again. Reforms and job creation policies need to be designed with an eye to the needs of poor people. If the next generation of African-American high school grads in North Carolina comes out better prepared to make their way in the 21st-century economy, and tax and business promotions keep the demand for labor high in the Tarheel State, the current wave of GOP reformers will end up with a better historical reputation than Josephus Daniels and the rest of the southern progressives of 100 years ago.