Jim Martin is one of modern North Carolina’s most successful political leaders. We’ll know in November whether he’ll remain the only two-term Republican governor in state history. Before his time in Raleigh, from 1985 to 1993, Martin spent 12 years in Washington as the 9th District representative to the U.S. House and six years on the county commission in Mecklenburg County, including two different stints as chairman of that board. His policy accomplishments run the gamut from local budgeting and regional planning to state highway funding and federal tax cuts. His political role in building the North Carolina Republican Party into a competitive force in state and local elections is widely appreciated.
Throughout his decades in government service, Martin remained committed to his initial career: education. After receiving his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Princeton University in 1960, he returned to his undergraduate alma mater, Davidson College, to teach, mentor students, and raise his family. During his three terms as a Mecklenburg county commissioner, Martin continued his teaching career at Davidson, and even helped the college design and implement a new curriculum during his 12 years on the faculty.
As a matter of fact, Martin’s political career had begun on the Davidson campus a few years earlier. A group of conservative students wanted to start a club, which later became a College Republicans chapter. They needed a faculty advisor. As far as they could tell, Professor Martin was the only member of the faculty who wasn’t a Democrat. So they asked him to advise the club. Martin couldn’t bring himself just to sign his name and then let the club go its own way. He attended the meetings, became fascinated by both the issues and the mechanics of electoral politics, and helped the students turn out record numbers of Republican voters in 1964 in precincts of Mecklenburg County that tended to vote heavily Democratic. Local GOP leaders noticed. They recruited him to run for office in 1966.
Education was one of Martin’s top priorities as a local candidate and, later, chairman of the county commission. He insisted that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools be first in line when it came to county appropriations, and that its share of county spending rise over time. Two decades later, as governor of North Carolina, Martin pursued a similar course. The General Assembly, then overwhelmingly Democratic, agreed with the strategy. K-12 education rose as a share of General Fund spending during his first term.
While a strong advocate for education, Martin frequently clashed with the education establishment over particular issues and didn’t flinch from taking a controversial stand if he believed it was the right thing to do. For example, as a congressman in 1975, Martin was one of only seven members in the U.S. House of Representatives to vote against the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. It required all public schools receiving federal funds to offer individualized education plans to students with physical and mental disabilities, while offering states additional dollars to help fund the necessary services. Martin strongly supported the bill’s intention. He championed the needs of disabled students as a county commissioner and, later, as governor. But he opposed the 1975 bill because it constituted federal involvement in what was, under the Constitution, a state and local function.
During his governorship, Martin butted heads with Democratic lawmakers and interest groups repeatedly over the Basic Education Program (BEP), teacher pay, and other matters of education policy. He thought the original BEP was too prescriptive, offering little flexibility for local school districts to set their own priorities. He also championed the Career Ladder program and other potential approaches to paying teachers according to performance instead of rigid salary schedules based on years of experience.
Although frustrated at first with what he viewed as legislative intransigence, Martin had a larger impact on North Carolina education policy in the long run than one might have expected from a Republican governor in what remained at the time a heavily Democratic state capital. He and his top aides joined Democratic leaders and the new Public School Forum in devising reforms of the BEP and other state programs that eventually passed the General Assembly as the School Improvement and Accountability Act of 1989, more commonly known as Senate Bill 2. It called for a new state-designed set of standardized end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, as well as the publication of “report cards” for each school district that would “take into account demographic, economic, and other factors that have been shown to affect student performance.” In return, school districts would receive more autonomy to spend state dollars as they wished. The flexibility would later extend to teacher compensation.
During the recessionary budget years of 1989, 1990, and 1991, Martin insisted that core education initiatives be funded and fought with lawmakers of both parties over fiscal priorities, with mixed success. Nevertheless, even when the resulting state budgets gave education groups less than they hoped for, most recognized that the governor shared their fundamental beliefs about the critical role of good schools in strengthening North Carolina’s economy and civil society. During his second inaugural address in 1989, Martin quoted several of his predecessors on the subject. He noted that Kerr Scott had said “the most valuable crop we raise is our children,” and that Jim Holshouser had promised that “quality education will be a polar star which will guide us toward a future of promise.” As for his own administration, Gov. Martin put his policy objectives this way:
“There is no responsibility more important than strengthening our financial support for public education, except to ensure that we get better results and that our children get more out of what we put in.”
As a leader in education policy over four decades, Jim Martin made it very clear that he believed in both halves of that whole — in making schools a top funding priority, yes, but also in increasing the productivity of every dollar the taxpayers put into education. As school funding, teacher pay, accountability, and other issues continue to prompt robust debate in North Carolina to this day, it’s worth remembering that people of good faith and abiding commitment to educational progress can disagree about means while sharing the same ends.
That’s the spirit in which Jim Martin approached his role as a leader in education policy. And it helps to explain why, despite significant odds against him, he enjoyed an impressive record of success.