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Facing brutal facts: A window of opportunity to rethink education in North Carolina

Good politicians and savvy policymakers understand how to take advantage of a window of opportunity.  Step number one is to identify the window.

Last week, I received an email telling me that Scott Ralls, the president of our community college system, was headed to Virginia to be the president of Northern Virginia Community College, often called NOVA.  I wasn’t surprised, but I was bummed.

I had high hopes for Ralls’ leadership.  Seven years ago, in May 2008, Ralls was the president of Craven Community College in New Bern.  He wrote an article for North Carolina Insight, the journal of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.   Entitled “Facing Brutal Facts,” Ralls saw a window of opportunity to retrofit our community colleges for North Carolina’s new economic landscape.

Brutal fact #1: “At the same time that nontraditional community college undergraduates are filtering into postsecondary ranks, African American males are vanishing…. In order to combat the division into two North Carolinas, our state must address this predicament.”

Brutal fact #2: “Nationwide, community college completion rates improve while North Carolina’s worsen… The lack of academic preparedness is of great concern in that taxpayers often end up ‘paying double’ for high school graduates to take remedial courses before working on college credits.”

Brutal fact #3: “There exists our brutal economic dilemma. Given current demographic trends, immigration policies, and enforcement of policies under current law, new immigrants to our state – including undocumented immigrants – are part of our current work force.  Absent a significant change in immigration policy, they will play an increasing role in our future work force.  Consequently, our state faces a challenging question on a macro-level similar to one posed to a business leader who, given the mobility of current workers, was asked a question, ‘What if I train them and they leave?’  His response: ‘What if they are not trained and they stay?’”

Brutal fact #4: “Balancing rising enrollments, lagging faculty salaries, and inadequate equipment funds with expanding needs for graduate.”

Photo Credit: Craven Community College/NC Center for Public Policy Research
Photo Credit: Craven Community College/NC Center for Public Policy Research

Ralls concluded, “In order to ensure that our next 50 years are as productive and beneficial as our last 50, North Carolina’s leaders must not only recognize these brutal facts, but also act to enable community colleges to provide the access and opportunity capable of bridging the education and economic gaps that threaten to divide our state.”  Later in that month of May back in 2008, Ralls was named president of our community college system.

His own window of opportunity was diminished by the great recession and some would argue the change in our political landscape that followed.

In an interview with Higher Education Works, Martin Lancaster, who headed the community college system from 1997-2008, said, “Scott Ralls is really one of the most visionary and effective community college leaders in the country.”

In May 2008, I was the editor of North Carolina Insight, and as I was conducting research on our community colleges and working with Ralls on his article, my brother was also reenvisioning community colleges. 

My brother, Jim Rash, an Academy Award-winning writer, director, and actor, also saw a window of opportunity albeit on the other side of the country out in LA.  With the recession looming and community colleges our nation’s choice for work force retraining, Jim and his business partner Nat Faxon were penning a television pilot called, “Adult School.”  The comedy did not get picked up, but one thing led to another like they do out in LA, and Jim emerged with a different window of opportunity. 

Jim is now well known for his role as Dean Pelton on NBC’s and now Yahoo’s fan fave Community.  I have always wondered what Ralls thought of that show.  Greendale is not exactly the community college he and I would have dreamed up for our 21st century North Carolina.

Which reminds us that you have to be careful with windows of opportunity.  The first rule when considering a change in public policy is do no harm.

One of the things that worries me about Ralls leaving is the timing. UNC System President Tom Ross is stepping down by January 2016 or when a successor is named.  And June Atkinson has not announced whether she will run again for Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

But perhaps the timing creates a window of opportunity for our state. 

The silos and turf that define our education system in North Carolina – preK v. K-12 v. community colleges v. the UNC System – might be easier to reconsider with the leaders guarding the turf in flux.

“The current system … with everybody and nobody in charge is hard to defend,” said an article in EducationNext last week.

Also last week, an article in EdNC on Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), said “He thinks the state needs a secretary of education. But not to replace the current leadership. Rather, he thinks the secretary should oversee the entire continuum of education: pre-K, K-12, community colleges and universities. He thinks there needs to be somebody working to ensure that priorities and goals are connected across sectors.”

It’s not the only option that should be considered, but a change like that would address many of Ralls’ brutal facts. I’d bet issues like remediation would get addressed and resolved pretty quickly if only one system existed to deal with our high school graduates that are ill-prepared.

Photo Credit: Governor McCrory/Flickr
Photo Credit: Governor McCrory/Flickr

And having one person responsible for guiding our system of education into the 21st century is worth thinking about collectively.  A colleague last night also noted the merits of a holistic budget for education.

In April 2013, Governor Pat McCrory reconvened the North Carolina Education Cabinet to develop a new vision and brand for education in our state. The North Carolina General Assembly created the North Carolina Education Cabinet back in 1992 to ensure cooperation among all entities of the state’s education system.  The Governor’s press release said the Cabinet would focus on, among other things, sharing “efficiencies and effectiveness among each education silo.”

Is it time to reconsider those silos altogether?  That’s up to you.

Given their years of combined public service, including Ross, Ralls, and Atkinson in a conversation about where we are and where we are going is worth thinking about too.

Fifteen years into this century of ours, these leadership transitions create for us a window of opportunity. But let’s be mindful to do no harm.


Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.