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Earlier this month, the NC State Board of Education adopted a vision statement.  The statement outlines one view of what public education in North Carolina is and should be.  To quote sports broadcaster Keith Jackson, "Whoa, Nellie."

Bulletin Board

  • The John Locke Foundation cordially invites you to a Headliner Luncheon with our special guest Dr. Charles Murray, Author of Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.  The luncheon will begin at noon on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at the Woman’s Club of Raleigh (3300 Woman’s Club Drive). Tickets are $30.00 and may be purchased online.
  • The North Carolina History Project would like educators and homeschool parents to submit lesson plans suitable for middle and high school courses in North Carolina history.  Please provide links to N.C. History Project encyclopedia articles and other primary and secondary source material, if possible.  Go to the N.C. History Project website for further information.
  • JLF’s research newsletter archive does not have a section dedicated to library cards.


State Board of Education Vision of Public Education in North Carolina: A Great Public Education System for a Great State is the title of a vision statement adopted by the State Board of Education (SBE) earlier this month.  I will not provide a line-by-line critique of the statement or the longer document from which it came, that is, Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd’s A Vision of Public Education in North Carolina.  Rather, I’ll share some of my initial thoughts about it and the philosophy of education that it espouses.  (The entire vision statement is available in the Facts and Stats section of the newsletter.)

By design, the vision statement is broad.  Therefore, a range of policies may fit under one or more of the principles outlined.  Take the following passage, for example.

If public funds were to be made available — whether in the form of school vouchers for parents or state revenue foregone in the form of tax credits for scholarships — the private and religious schools benefitting from such funds would need to be incorporated far more explicitly into the public school system.

What does it mean to "incorporate" private and religious schools "far more explicitly into the public school system?"  I suspect that the word "incorporate" is a euphemism for "regulate" or "control," but it is impossible to know for sure.

Fiske and Ladd’s essay is instructive in this regard.  Fiske is former education editor for the New York Times and Ladd is a professor of public policy at Duke University.  Their statement, A Vision of Public Education in North Carolina, provided the foundation for the vision statement and goes into much more detail about the vision adopted by the State Board of Education. 

Specifically, their piece is much more explicit about the desire to regulate non-public schools that receive public funds.  Fiske and Ladd remark,

In practical terms, this means that charter schools, virtual schools and other new options must be accessible to all students and held to the same high standards of academic, fiscal and other forms of accountability as traditional public schools. To justify state support, they must also embrace the central values of the public school system of which they are a part.

The idea that we hold our traditional public schools to high academic standards is debatable.  That issue aside, the notion that public charter schools would have to embrace "the central values of the public school system of which they are a part" is troubling.  Simply put, I do not think there is a consensus on the "central values of the public school system."  Moreover, do traditional public schools embrace these so-called "central values" or is it another double standard, a kind of ideological litmus test for participating non-public schools?

Fiske and Ladd allude to the kinds of central values they have in mind.  Predictably, their vision of public schools has a progressive tilt, but the most striking section of the essay is their adherence to systems theory.  They write,

A state education system is more than a collection of students, staff, teachers and administrators going about their appointed tasks, and it is more than a collection of self-sufficient independent schools. It is a "system" — an organic whole with multiple and mutually dependent and interdependent parts interacting and working together over time toward common goals.

Systems theory (also called "systems thinking") largely dismisses the role of individuals (e.g., "students, staff, teachers and administrators") and segments (e.g., "self-sufficient independent schools") within a system.  Instead, it takes a broader look at the system by examining and rationalizing the interaction of its parts.  There is no hierarchy.  There are no right answers.  As Peter Senge explains,

[Systems thinking] is a journey that we are all taking together. There are no ‘teachers’ with correct answers…. Each of us gives up our own certainty and recognizes our interdependency within the larger community of practitioners. The honest, humble, and purposeful ‘I don’t know’ grounds our vision for learning organizations.

In other words, systems thinking is not about "you" or "them."  It is about "we."

Why is this important?  The systems theory approach introduces Fiske and Ladd’s section on school choice.  They argue that charter schools, early college schools, and the NC Virtual Public Schools are only acceptable if they "maintain their status as an integral part of the larger state education system." (Emphasis added.)  Similarly, they argue that non-public schools that receive funds from vouchers or tax credits must be "incorporated far more explicitly into the public school system." (Emphasis added.)  In other words, schools of choice are fine as long as they conform to the goals and expectations of the larger system.  Competition be damned.

These ideas are at the core of the State Board of Education’s vision statement, but it does not stop there.  School districts are flirting with the idea of adopting systems thinking principles.  What’s next, standards based on systems thinking?  Oh, wait…

Random Thought

To support his contention that rugby is superior to American football, a colleague pointed out that some professional football players have small towels hanging from their waists.  He’s got a point.  There is nothing manly about having a portable towel on your person.

Facts and Stats

State Board of Education Vision of Public Education in North Carolina: A Great Public Education System for a Great State

Adapted from the report submitted by Edward B. Fiske and Helen F. Ladd

Great states have great public education systems, and great public education systems require great states. A great state boasts a dynamic and diverse economy with economic opportunities for all of its citizens. A great state enjoys a culture of innovation and creativity as well as vibrant arts, its natural resources and other cultural and recreational opportunities. The State Board of Education’s vision of a public education system builds on the state’s constitutional commitment to education and emphasizes the state’s responsibility for assuring a strong and coherent system that serves all students and that is geared toward the promotion of the public interest.

Public education: the foundation for democratic institutions and economic prosperity

A forward-looking vision for education in North Carolina must be grounded in a continued commitment to public education as the foundation of our democratic institutions and the engine of economic growth. Public schools equip students with the knowledge, skills and perspectives they need to engage in reasoned and civil debate of public issues. A strong public school system provides a steady flow of skilled workers, especially in emerging areas such as advanced manufacturing where many employers are struggling to find workers.

Ambitious and evolving educational standards

A great public education system is one that prepares all students for postsecondary education, careers, citizenship and lifelong learning. It sets high standards and fosters the critical thinking and otherskills needed in today’s global economy. A great state education system must evolve over time in response to changes in the state’s economic, technological, and social contexts as well as in response to developments in other states and the world.

Public and individual benefits

The State Board’s vision fosters both a spirit of individual freedom and a sense of common purpose. The children who are educated receive the opportunity to maximize their potential and pursue their personal dreams and aspirations. These benefits include the opportunities to attend post-secondary education, enhanced employment opportunities, higher earnings, better mental and physical health, greater political, social and cultural awareness and a higher quality of life. A public education system builds connections between public schools and the civic and social purposes for which they were established and that justify the use of taxpayer dollars to fund them. It provides a structure that allows the various stakeholders — students, teachers, administrators, parents, state and district policymakers, the business community and others, schools and universities — to work together in pursuit of common goals.

The importance of diversity and equal opportunity

A strong public education system in North Carolina promotes the state’s civic and economic functions by celebrating the diversity of our population and providing a high quality educational opportunity to all children regardless of their backgrounds or where they live. Public schools are most successful in promoting democratic traditions when they embody important values such as fairness, equity, inclusiveness and respect for diversity of opinion in their own operations. And in many cases, publicly funded schools are one of the few places in our society where young people have the opportunity to learn, work and play with those whose backgrounds and perspectives differ from their own.

A coherent and flexible system

The State Board’s vision encourages diverse and innovative means of delivering education while assuring that each element of the system shares a commitment to the broad purposes of public education, including the maximizing of opportunity for all students. A strong state public education system offers a wide range of content that serves the needs of students with varying academic and career/technical interests, and it offers students and parents the opportunity to make choices among a variety of schooling options with differing missions and educational philosophies.

This vision emphasizes community and cooperation. It provides a mechanism for promising improvements and innovations to be widely distributed. It will require that relevant policymakers and practitioners — both those within the education sector and those in related areas such as family and child services — work together to make strategic decisions about how best to organize the delivery of education in each community to meet the public interest.

Charter schools, Cooperative and Innovative High Schools, the North Carolina Virtual Public Schools and other recent educational innovations can serve as sources of experimentation and innovation and provide quality educational alternatives. These schools have a legitimate claim on taxpayer funds to the extent that they further the overall purposes of the state education system. In practical terms, this means these options must be accessible to all students and held to the same high standards of academic, fiscal and other forms of accountability as traditional public schools.

Because many students move between the private and public sectors, some form of coordination between these sectors is appropriate. If public funds were to be made available — whether in the form of school vouchers for parents or state revenue foregone in the form of tax credits for scholarships — the private and religious schools benefitting from such funds would need to be incorporated far more explicitly into the public school system. That would be necessary because state policymakers have a responsibility to the state’s taxpayers to assure that the funds are being used to promote the public interest and not just the interests of the direct beneficiaries.


I would like to invite all readers to submit announcements, as well as their personal insights, anecdotes, concerns, and observations about the state of education in North Carolina. I will publish selected submissions in future editions of the newsletter. Anonymity will be honored. For additional information or to send a submission, email Terry at [email protected].

Education Acronyms of the Week

SBE — State Board of Education

Quote of the Week

"This vision recognizes that public education involves multiple — and sometimes conflicting — values. Publicly funded schools operate at the intersection of two sets of legitimate rights: those of parents to direct the upbringing of their children and those of society as a whole to perpetuate democratic values and to promote collective prosperity. Parents have the right — indeed, the obligation — to seek out the best possible education for their children, but they should be free to do so only within a context that permits other parents to do likewise."

– Edward B. Fiske and Helen F. Ladd, "A Vision of Public Education in North Carolina"

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