Some of North Carolina’s most influential business leaders, hoping to exert more influence on state education policy, are backing a nonprofit advocacy group that is responding to what it calls a “crisis of mediocrity” in the state’s public schools. Formed two years ago, Business for Educational Success and Transformation NC, or BEST NC, has a 15-member board chock full of notables spread across the state, including Lowe’s Cos. CEO Robert Niblock and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina CEO Brad Wilson.The group’s chairman is former Wachovia Corp. executive Walter McDowell, who helped recruit board members from throughout the state and raise funds from more than a dozen North Carolina companies, including SAS Institute Inc., Allen Tate Cos. and Bank of America Corp.
BEST NC’s profile will rise this month with a Sept. 28 conference in Cary, expected to attract 120 representatives of various interest groups such as the N.C. Child Care Coalition, Duke Endowment and N.C. School Superintendents Association. At a so-called “Innovation Lab,” officials who have worked to develop education-improvement visions will present ideas for an action plan. BEST NC has a lofty goal of steering North Carolina to “lead the nation in academic achievement and the number of young people who are well-prepared to succeed in school, work and life by 2020,” says Brenda Berg, the group’s CEO. They hope to emulate similar business-backed efforts in Massachusetts and Tennessee that have led to rapid, steady and significant improvements, she says.
After meeting with hundreds of educators, parents, lawmakers and others, the group concluded that improving N.C. schools encompasses several key tasks, Berg says. The list includes higher pay for good teachers, recruiting and rewarding talented principals, and motivating students to develop higher expectations. “Consistency and alignment are essential, as is being comprehensive and operating with a high sense of urgency. North Carolina’s students cannot afford further delay,” she says, pointing to fourth-grade test scores that are barely above national averages and not improving.
BEST NC, which has a five-person staff, will have significant clout because of its stellar board and corporate support, says Jane Smith Patterson, a longtime adviser to former Gov. Jim Hunt, whose intense focus on public schools led supporters to call him “the education governor.” While Patterson is a staunch Democrat, there is bipartisan support for improving the state’s public schools, reflected in the makeup of BEST NC’s backers, who include businesspeople with conservative credentials such as Charlotte manufacturing executive Frank Dowd and Raleigh developer Jim Anthony. “I’ve listened to presentations that BEST has done, and they were very impressive,” Patterson says. “Walter McDowell and others on the board care a great deal about the state and feel we need to move forward again. We’ve been treading water or going backward.”
North Carolina’s fourth-grade test scores are barely above national averages and not improving.
BEST NC joins other groups such as N.C. New Schools and EducationNC that have similar agendas, and follows efforts dating back a few decades to engender business-community support for public schools. “We need as many organizations to focus on education in North Carolina as we can get,” Patterson says. “One of the things Gov. Hunt established in his first administration was a management council with the purpose of having C-suite people be strong supporters of public education. They were very successful.”
To build the coalition, organizers including McDowell, Allen Tate Cos. President Pat Riley and former UNC Board of Governors member Ann Goodnight tapped Berg because of her business and nonprofit expertise spanning the last 20 years. As a parent of a fifth-grader and an eighth-grader in Wake County public schools, she also has a stake in the game. She worked for education and transportation policy groups before starting a baby-products manufacturing and importing business in Raleigh. She is no longer part of that business.
“We have worked with state leaders on a comprehensive educator innovation package that will dramatically improve how we recruit, prepare, develop and support teachers and school leaders,” Berg says. That includes helping craft education bills that included higher pay for new teachers, passed by the General Assembly earlier this year, Berg says. The group also wants legislative support to provide teachers with 10 years of experience with at least $45,000 in base pay, and $50,000 for those with 15 years on the job.
Student performance is BEST NC’s top priority, Berg says. “We can’t accept that any problem is too big or difficult to be solved.”