The nation's eyes are on my home state of North Carolina, where what many are calling a coup has shown the lengths to which Republicans will go to protect and expand their political power.

The naked power grab by Republicans has shocked the nation. But few people really understand that a struggle over public education is at the center of the fight against an authoritarian government in the era of Donald Trump.

What did Republicans do? In a nutshell, according to a review of the carnage by David Graham for The Atlantic, "Having lost the governor’s seat in November’s election, the GOP legislature opted to simply reduce the governor’s power drastically. The two most prominent bills involve the elections system and the governor’s right to make appointments."

Specifically, on the elections front, Republicans robbed incoming Democratic Governor Roy Cooper of his ability to change the composition of state and county boards of elections, diluted the governor's appointment authority, and rigged the timing of county board leadership to favor Republicans.

Republican lawmakers took away the incoming governor’s ability to make appointments to the State Board of Education and the boards of trustees of University of North Carolina system, made cabinet appointees subject to approval by the senate, and cut the number of appointments the governor can make for government jobs from 1,500 to 425.

The attack on the incoming governor's power over education appointments is especially radical, as it transfers power from the state board to the new state superintendent of public instruction, Republican Mark Johnson, who defeated the Democratic incumbent, June Atkinson, in November.

Why go after education offices?

In North Carolina, public education has always been an issue inextricably intertwined with voting rights and democracy. To learn more about this I talked with historian Timothy Tyson at one of his favorite haunts in downtown Durham, a combination coffee shop, casual eatery, and general store with rough-hewn pine floors and timbered ceilings. Tyson, a university professor and author of an acclaimed book on racial turmoil in his childhood home of Oxford, NC, is an expert on issues of culture and race in the South. Tyson also serves as the Education Director of the North Carolina NAACP.

Since 2007, Tyson has been a prominent part of the protest movement, most commonly referred to as the Moral Monday Movement, that has led numerous mass demonstrations and other actions to oppose rightwing extremism in his state and elsewhere.

"Education fits into the Moral Monday Movement," Tyson explains, "because political culture in North Carolina centers on it." Based on the history of the state and the South in general, he argues, education is front and center for any political argument addressing voting rights and democracy.

In Tyson's account, conservative North Carolinians have always attacked public education as a means of waging political warfare. In the post-Civil War years, white conservatives were generally opposed to public schools. They regarded education as belonging to the privileged class who could afford to pay for it.

Under Reconstruction, however, the state's Constitution was rewritten in 1868 to include, among many other provisions, the state's obligation to provide a sound, basic, and free education to every citizen. Black North Carolinians had won full citizenship, and the state was obligated to educate them, along with the children of many poor, white farmers and laborers.

When black citizens achieved voting rights, conservative whites also faced the prospect of black voters joining forces with white progressives to form an imposing voting bloc. As the power of this new coalition expanded – into what Tyson calls a "fusion movement" – its influence in the legislature expanded, too, and by the late 1800s, the fusion movement had succeeded in substantially increasing state spending on public education.

As the turn of the last century neared, however, a growing “white supremacy campaign” grew in power until it wrested state government away from the progressive coalition in 1900 and installed two measures to strip the vote from black North Carolinians.

First, white conservatives imposed a “grandfather clause,” which exempted all voters whose grandfathers had not been eligible to vote—a de facto way to exclude the children of slaves. Conservatives also enacted literacy tests as a means of blocking under-educated blacks from voting. The tests posed a problem, however, when it became apparent many poor white farmers and laborers, who were under-educated, too, couldn't pass them.

To address that problem, Governor Charles Aycock, who became known as North Carolina's first "education governor," created a well-funded, mass effort to vastly improve the state's public school system and to raise the education of white voters so they could pass the state’s literacy tests.

Ever since the Aycock administration, Tyson tells me, every North Carolina governor has wanted to wear the mantle of "education governor."

Aycock scaled up the number of schools for black children, too. But those schools remained a separate and unequal system. Black students received a third of what was allocated to educate whites.

This separate and unequal system of public education, enacted largely to keep political power in the hands of white conservatives, is what built the social order of segregation, which prevailed until the Civil Rights Movement toppled it in the 1960s.

"Education is foundational to North Carolina's sense of itself as a progressive southern state," Tyson insists.

Today, Republicans are making education part of their Carolina coup and enacting new ways to limit the control Democrats have over public schools.

What doesn't make sense is that many Democrats – in the South and elsewhere –  don't defend public schools very forcefully, even as they stand up for voting rights and democratic principles.

Indeed, the trend for nearly thirty years has been that Democrats compromise with Republicans on education—by accepting privatization efforts like vouchers and charter schools, for example, by agreeing to sustain inadequate funding levels, and by stifling the voices of classroom teachers and their unions.

The lesson for Democrats from the Republican Carolina coup is that public education is a cornerstone of our democracy, and closely related to the fight for voting rights, racial justice, and a more equal society. Democrats must resurrect the conviction of their fusion heritage to fight for free, accessible, and high-quality public schools for all children.


Brilliant analysis, Jeff. And teachers have long been the major point of attack on public education. They are the largest college-educated workforce in America - and a potential powerful voice for democratic schools.. Granted, the vast majority of the public continues to have trust and confidence in them as individual professionals. Imagine if the public developed the same trust in them as a collective.

I would take Mr. Bryant's conclusions a step further: what we are witnessing now in NC we are likely to witness even more in the coming years unless the Democrats "resurrect the conviction of their fusion heritage". If Democrats and citizens allow Mr. Trump's prospective appointees to carry out their mission of disabling the various agencies they are heading we will all be living in a country that resembles NC more than a country that resembles, say, CA, OR, WA, or VT. Our children are depending on us to restore democracy.

As a former teacher of over 30 years I have seen the destruction of Public Education first hand .
In the 70s it was let the children do as they wish . If Johnny walks out of class it's the teachers fault . Then teachers received the blame for the falling grades .
Now it's the teachers fault that the corporate Common Core doesn't work . It fails because it is insane . It succeeds because it makes billions for big corporations who are there for profit and nothing else . Every society has eventually fallen apart . It is now obvious that we are on our way

Strange. A major problem in electing a communist government, when communism was alive and well, was that it was always the last election. Democracy disappeared when the communists were elected and the opposition became "enemies of the state." The Republicans appear to be following the same course. Will America become a one party state?

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

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