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The Center now in friendly hands of EdNC

Sometimes life takes you on a circular path, bringing you back to an earlier highlight moment. So it was this week as the board of directors of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research turned over the organization’s assets and governance to the executive committee of EducationNC.

After covering the 1973-74 General Assembly as the chief capitol correspondent of The News and Observer, I wrote a column observing that North Carolina lacked an independent institution to offer ideas and analysis to its policymakers. And I suggested as a model the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), a credible business-financed organization that I knew from my previous reporting in New Orleans. Over the 20-plus years I wrote a weekly newspaper column, it is the only one I can say with certainty helped produce a result.

Gerry Hancock and Bob Spearman, then young lawyers who had been UNC-Chapel Hill classmates, picked up the idea and developed it into a proposal for a nonprofit policy center in the summer of 1975, modeled also on four other centers across the United States serving Illinois, New York, California, and New Jersey. Tom Lambeth and Joel Fleishman, both former aides to Gov. Terry Sanford, joined them in pursuing the proposal. They obtained seed-money from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, whose executive director, Bill Bondurant, had served two years in Gov. Jim Holshouser’s cabinet. Other dollars came in quickly from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and then the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

The Center opened in the spring of 1977. It struggled through its early years, with three executive directors serving for short terms. Then in 1981, the Center’s board hired Ran Coble as executive director, and he became a major figure in policy research and state governmental oversight during his 33 years as the Center’s leader.

Under Coble’s guidance until he retired in 2014, the Center adhered to a nonpartisan, fact-based approach. It turned out long-form, footnote-filled policy reports, and it published journalism-style essays on contemporary state issues. The Center produced the magazine-style N.C. Insight, a guide to the General Assembly, and rankings of legislators and lobbyists.

Such journalism colleagues as Jack Betts, Howard Covington, and Bill Finger worked on the Center’s staff. My friend and UNC faculty colleague Thad Beyle served for nearly a decade as the board chair.

Over the years, the Center conducted major studies of university governance, mental health services, “special provisions’’ in the appropriations bill, economic development practices, low-wealth schools, and teacher certification. Coble appeared on TV and radio, and he spent days and days in the Legislative Building applying the Center’s research to actual legislation.

And yet, nonprofits have life-cycles. The policy-research space it occupied so robustly for three decades became crowded with the rise of the John Locke Foundation on the right, the N.C. Justice Center on the left, and an array of subject-specific research and advocacy organizations.

Gerry Hancock and I co-founded EdNC in 2014. Mebane Rash, who had been serving as the Center’s law and policy director, joined EdNC as CEO and editor-in-chief. Her step-mother, Betty Chafin Rash, served on the Center’s board in the late 70s and early 80s. PAR – the Louisiana research organization that inspired the Center – is a member of the national Governmental Research Association, as is the Center, and Mebane is the vice chair of the GRA’s Board of Directors. As a co-founder of EdNC, Hancock serves as its first board chair, just as he served as the Center’s founding chair. Tom Lambeth is also on the EdNC board. Bill Bondurant has generously assisted EdNC in obtaining grant funding from the Park Foundation. From time to time, I wrote essays for N.C. Insight, and consulted often with Ran Coble on state policy issues.

I mention these relationships from the Center’s past and EdNC’s present to make two points: The staff and board of EdNC honor the legacy of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, and EdNC will work to make the Center’s historically valuable archives more accessible. And, EdNC remains committed to fact-based reporting, analysis, and research devoted to improving state and local governance, especially in enhancing the lives of North Carolina’s school children.

Preserving the archives and strengthening policy analysis and debate together serve importantly to keep alive the Center’s spirit of caring for North Carolina and its government. Expect great things from us.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.