Robert B. Simpson: Slipping away

August 4, 2013 

Many have experienced the pain of watching a beloved person exhibit a complete personality change while sliding into dementia. I feel a little of such pain as I watch from afar while the personality and character of my native state change for the worse.

North Carolina in the past was most often politically moderate. It took a reasonable approach to caring for its citizens, while eschewing posturing and delusions of grandeur. As states go, it tended to be low-key, laid back. Unlike its close neighbors, Virginia and South Carolina, the Tar Heel state had relatively few large plantations in the early days. A land of mostly yeoman farmers and tradesmen, it came by its modesty naturally. Its citizens held fewer slaves than its Confederate sisters, yet sacrificed more soldiers to the "Lost Cause" than any other Southern state.

The state quietly capitalized on its reputation for modesty. It was gently drilled into us as children. I was taught in public school, only half-jokingly, that North Carolina was "a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit--Virginia and South Carolina." (Apologies, my Virginia and South Carolina friends. If I have any left.)

Suddenly, North Carolina has begun to rival Texas in its efforts to institute draconian policies concerning women, voters recently laid bare by the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and finances. Restrictive abortion laws that provide an end run around the law of the land, Roe v. Wade, are being enacted. The state is now heading to a flat income tax rate, reducing regulations on business, and cutting unemployment payments to a ridiculously low level. And hacking away at its traditional reverence for and support for public education.

Governor Charles B. Aycock, in office 1901-1905, was known as the "Education Governor." During his four years in office, the state built 690 new public school buildings. In modern times, Aycock's reputation was besmirched by revelations of his racism, charges that could probably be leveled at any number of public figures from that era, and later. But he is still honored in North Carolina for his devotion to and promotion of public education. He devoted much of his remaining years to traveling the country to speak in support of education. Later governors liked to be compared favorably to Charles B. Aycock.

Sad to say, the politicians currently running things in the state are no Aycocks. So far they seem to be ignoring the citizen rallies in the capital city of Raleigh every week, where teachers and others are trying to make their voices heard. Some teachers have taken to the news media to express not so much demands as sorrow at being forced out of a profession they loved, in a state some had come to because it was once so welcoming and supportive of education.

An English teacher wrote that her income of $31,000 a year, after seven years of teaching, is so low that her two daughters qualify for Medicaid. A school counselor with a master's degree and 10 years' experience is on food stamps. A math teacher with 10 years' experience, a master's degree, National Board certified, and Teacher of the Year in his district, is moving to Pennsylvania. He and his wife, both working, could not adequately support their family. In Pennsylvania, his teacher's salary alone will be $9,000 a year more than both spouses were paid annually in North Carolina.

A decade ago, North Carolina was around the middle of the 50 states in teacher pay. Now it is 46th. The result is that it is hemorrhaging teachers. But I suppose starving teachers should be happy that the state is cutting taxes for businesses and bringing in a flat income tax. And the politicians butchering a once quietly proud state are giddy with delight.

The sad young English teacher whose daughters are on Medicaid wrote, "I am desperately seeking a way out of the classroom, and nothing about education in North Carolina breaks my heart more."

I watch my old home state slide into dementia, and I think that the rustling noise you hear must be Charles B. Aycock turning over in his grave.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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