Alice Battle was already a veteran teacher when integration finally came to North Carolina.
Thirteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, she was peering out the window of her second-floor classroom, watching as white and black students streamed into Chapel Hill High School – together, for the first time. Battle had previously attended and taught in segregated Black schools and was more than a little nervous.
A riot had occurred a few days earlier, and tensions were high.
“Because they threw rocks and the end of the high school was all glass and they broke out all of that glass,” Battle remembers. “It was just so fearful, because we just didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Integration was the defining moment for public education and the teaching profession in the South in the 20th century. When desegregation finally came, and Battle could finally see how unequal white and black schools had been, she was shocked.
“When we integrated, oh, we had supplies” she said. “We had books. We had workbooks. We had everything. I guess that they had been having all along, but we didn’t have it.”
North Carolina was not much different from other southern states then. More than half of all students dropped out. Poverty was pervasive. The Ku Klux Klan had more members in North Carolina than in any other state in the country.
But there was also a progressive streak, especially when it came to education. Governor Terry Sanford had increased taxes on food in the 1950s to raise teacher salaries. “Terry’s Tax” as it came to be known, nearly ended his political career.
By the early 1970s, improving education had become a bipartisan issue when first Democrat Bob Scott and then Republican Jim Holshouser served as Governor. Both pushed for higher teacher salaries and statewide kindergarten.
“If you are going to, as an individual, have a full life, education can just make so much difference,” Holshouser told UNC TV in 2008. “Not in terms of just your ability to make a living, but in terms of your ability to see all that life has to offer.”
Holshouser was helped by the Lieutenant Governor, a little-known young Democrat by the name of Jim Hunt, who shared a similar vision on education.
“When Governor Holshouser was elected there was a surplus in the state treasury,” Hunt recalled. “And I am told that a lot of people said ‘well, you’ve got some extra money, cut taxes. You don’t need it.’ And I think Governor Holshouser’s response was: ‘I want to raise teacher salaries and put in kindergartens. We need the money. In education.’”
Hunt would succeed Holshouser as governor, and go on to become the longest-serving governor in state history – 16 years in all, from 1976 to 1984, and again from 1992 to 2000. And perhaps no governor in any state has ever had a more dramatic impact on public education and the profession of teaching.
“My lifetime commitment is to improve teaching and help teachers have a good life but to help the students learn,” said Hunt. “That’s what we’re really about. And if you do all those things than North Carolina will be highly successful. Our economy will grow. Our people will have a better life. And it’s all linked, primarily, more than anything else, to public schools and to teaching.”
To put this philosophy into practice, Hunt was a tireless deal-maker, making calls and twisting arms and hammering his message home constantly. Working with a Democratic Legislature for his first two terms, Hunt passed an enormous slate of education reforms. Class size reduction. Teacher salary increases. An institute to train principals. Founding The North Carolina School of Science and Math.
But Hunt says his proudest accomplishment was putting teacher assistants in every primary classroom. “I put most of them in way back in the 1970s and they have been invaluable.”
The North Carolina Association of Educators played a key role in his campaigns. But a recession hit during his second term and tough decisions had to be made. Hunt froze teacher salaries, and the NCAE turned on him, organizing a protest outside the governor’s mansion.
“Well, that was the only time we had a little tension,” Hunt said. “We had to freeze salaries or cut employees. It was that simple. They knew that I had worked hard to raise teacher pay before that happened. Certainly we worked hard afterward.”
Throughout Hunt’s time in public office, the state was undergoing a dramatic demographic change. From 1970 to 2010, North Carolina nearly doubled in population. This put tremendous pressure on the state’s education system. For one, the universities could not produce enough teachers, so districts hired many from out-of-state.
“We were very fortunate to have a period of time across both parties where this state made a conscious decision that education was going to be an important part of pulling us out of being a poor, southern, tobacco state,” said Jayne Fleener, the Dean of the School of Education at NC State. “And I have worked in other southern states, and they never had that.”
Teacher salaries continued to increase during the tenure of Republican Governor Jim Martin. But when Hunt returned to the Governor’s Mansion in 1992, the pace of education reform picked up again.
Hunt pushed a statewide Smart Start Pre-Kindergarten program, and focused even more on teacher salaries – finally increasing them to the national average, but also increasing accountability for teachers and schools – and testing for children.
The efforts gained national attention, even earning a mention in President Bill Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union Address.
“All states and school districts must turn around their worst performing schools -- or shut them down,” Clinton said. “That's the policy established in North Carolina by Governor Jim Hunt. North Carolina made the biggest gains in test scores in the nation last year.”
Test scores and teacher salaries remained in the middle of the pack through the next decade. Pre-K programs expanded and graduation rates rose under both Governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue.
But political winds were changing, and as the 21st century progressed, more conservative Republicans were winning seats in the Legislature. Perdue froze teacher salaries when the recession hit in 2009, and the often bi-partisan effort to improve schools evaporated.
In 2012, Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger introduced a new slate of reforms.
“Higher taxes and more spending is not a solution to the problems that we have in our public schools,” Berger said at a press conference before the Legislative session in 2012. “Until we get the policy right, I don’t think the taxpayers of this state are prepared or should be asked to put more money into the public schools.”
Berger passed almost all of his sweeping education reforms earlier this year. Among other things, it ended the Teaching Fellows program, ended tenure, and ended salary increases for teachers who earn master’s degrees. Teacher assistants were cut by 21 percent. Teacher salaries have plummeted, from 25th in the nation in 2008 to 46th today.
At 76 years old, Hunt is still a vehement advocate for education, leading think tanks and meeting with legislators and governors. He believes the new reforms are a step backward.
“The overall impression from teachers today, I think, is, ‘we aren’t appreciated, we aren’t respected, and we aren’t being paid fairly.’ That’s wrong,” said Hunt. “That’s going to hurt our schools. That’s going to hurt our children. That’s going to hurt our grandchildren. That’s going to hurt our economy and jobs.”
Alice Battle never paid too much attention to what was coming out of Raleigh. After desegregation, she taught in Chapel Hill for nearly four decades before retiring. Through the ups and downs, her philosophy of teaching and her commitment to students never wavered.
“I taught on the same level and I expected them to do it because I knew they could do it,” Battle says now. “I didn’t go down for anybody. And I think they eventually respected me for that.”
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.