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Public School Forum to honor former NC Senator Howard Lee for leadership in education

RALEIGH, NC (May 16, 2017) – Former North Carolina Senator Howard N. Lee  will receive the 2017 Public School Forum of North Carolina Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award at an event at the Raleigh Convention Center on Thursday evening (May 18). The Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award was established by the Public School Forum in 2000 to recognize leaders who have demonstrated innovative, creative, effective leadership for public education in North Carolina. The event begins with a reception at 6:00 PM, followed by a dinner and program at 7:00 PM.

“Howard Lee has been a leader and a trailblazer his entire life,” said Michael Priddy, Chairman, Public School Forum of North Carolina. “His lifetime of public service in support of children, including serving as our state’s first African-American chairman of the State Board of Education, stands as a shining example of the very best of North Carolina. Howard Lee exemplifies what we look for in selecting our annual award recipient: dedication, leadership and courage.”

Howard Lee may be best known as the first African-American to be elected mayor of a predominantly white southern town since reconstruction.  In 1969, he became Mayor of Chapel Hill, an office he would hold for three terms.  He was also the first African-American to be a cabinet secretary, as secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, and the first to chair the State Board of Education.  

In 1990, Lee was elected to the North Carolina Senate, where he served for 13 years.  During his tenure, he held several powerful committee chairmanships; presiding over education, transportation and Appropriations Committees.  In the North Carolina Senate, Lee built his reputation as a fighter for education reform.  He fought for higher teacher salaries, increased funding for public education and advocated for raising teacher and student standards.  In addition, he sponsored or co-sponsored several major pieces of educational legislation which included Smart Start, More at Four (a Pre-kindergarten program), the Excellent Schools Act for school reform, and the Safe Schools Act.  In 2003, Lee was elected to the position of Chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education and as a gubernatorial appointment (2005-2009) to the North Carolina Utilities Commission. 

During his career, he served as an administrator at Duke University and on the faculty of North Carolina Central University, in addition to being a member of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He has lectured at numerous universities throughout the South and the Nation.  .”  In 2008, he released his biographical memoir, entitled: “The Courage to Lead, One Man’s Journey in Public Service.” In his memoir, Lee shares his life story and insights about how he survived the oppressive gauntlet of Jim Crow infested South, overcame obstacles, and broke racial barriers as he rose to positions of political prominence and power.

Since 2011, Lee has spent most of his time as President of the Howard N. Lee Institute focused on developing initiatives in middle and high schools to increase the number of disadvantaged students, especially black boys, graduating from high school prepared to succeed in a post-secondary institution (university or community college).

Howard Nathaniel Lee, born July 28, 1934, grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in Lithonia, Georgia.  He graduated from Bruce High School in 1953.  He attended Fort Valley State College in Georgia where he received a BA degree in Sociology in 1959.  In August 1959, he was drafted and served two years in the United States Army; spending more than one year in Korea. After being honorably discharged from active duty in 1961, he worked for three years as a Juvenile Probation Officer in Savannah, Georgia.  In 1964, he enrolled in the graduate School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina and received his Master’s Degree in 1966.

About the Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award

The award is named in honor of the late Dr. Jay Robinson, one of our state’s most distinguished education leaders. His career spanned 50 years, beginning as a math teacher and basketball and football coach in Cabarrus County, becoming a school principal and later superintendent of schools in first Cabarrus and then Charlotte-Mecklenburg school systems. He served as vice president for public affairs and special projects for the University of North Carolina system and chaired the State Board of Education. He was also the first president of the Public School Forum and served as an Emeritus Member of the Board until his death in April 2000.

About the Public School Forum of North Carolina

Since 1986, the Public School Forum of North Carolina has been an indispensable and nonpartisan champion of better schools and the most trusted source in the state for research and analysis on vital education issues. We bring together leaders from business, education and government to study education issues, develop ideas, seek consensus, and ultimately inform and shape education policy. We do that through research, policy work, innovative programs, advocacy, and continuing education for educators and policymakers. Follow us on Twitter @theNCForum and visit our website at

Keith Poston

Keith Poston is the president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.