During the 1990s, North Carolina’s public schools posted some of the strongest performance gains in the country on independent reading and math tests. Democrats and Republicans took pride in the accomplishment and vied for the credit. Over the past decade, however, the trend has been markedly different — as have the political implications.

According to just-released results from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 33 percent of North Carolina 8th-graders are proficient or better in reading and 36 percent are proficient or better in math. Another 43 percent have bare-minimum reading skills and 39 percent have bare-minimum math skills. That means that about a quarter of 8th-graders lack even basic skills in core subjects.

Although you can and should be disappointed by these results, you need to know that they are unexceptional for America as a whole. North Carolina’s scale scores of 265 in reading and 286 in math are not significantly different from the national average.

What should worry you more is that North Carolina has lost its status as a pacesetter in educational improvement. Since the start of the 21st century, most other states — and most of our neighbors — have made larger gains in student achievement than North Carolina has.

From 2003 to 2013, for example, our 8th-grade reading score edged up only three points, which is not a statistically significant gain according to NAEP, while the nation as a whole posted a five-point gain, Georgia posted a seven-point gain, and Tennessee had a 10-point gain. In math, traditionally North Carolina’s stronger subject, our scale score rose only four points over the past decade, compared to a gain of six points in Virginia, seven points for the nation as a whole, and 10 points in Georgia and Tennessee. (South Carolina fared worse with only a three-point gain.)

Politically, the parties have shifted from claiming credit to shifting blame. Democrats say that Republicans are to blame by failing to fund public schools and teacher compensation adequately. But this argument violates the rules of the time-space continuum. The new Republican legislature took office in 2011. The first set of NAEP scores for which it is even conceivable their fiscal decisions might have affected public education would be the ones just released for 2013. Obviously, new GOP policies couldn’t be responsible for a decade-long trend.

Republicans, in turn, blame Democrats for failing to enact sufficient reforms during the 2000s to maintain the momentum of North Carolina’s educational progress during the early to mid 1990s. Okay, but what about the No Child Left Behind program enacted by then-Republican President George W. Bush and a Republican Congress? Whatever benefits the law may have conferred elsewhere, North Carolina doesn’t appear to have made much progress under its enhanced federal funding and other provisions.

Over the past three years, conservative reformers in Raleigh have enacted a series of fundamental changes in North Carolina education. These include an end to teacher tenure, a greater emphasis on teacher quality, greater parental choice and competition among educational providers, and more fiscal and managerial autonomy for local school districts.

Conservative lawmakers argue these reforms will produce greater gains in student performance over the next decade than North Carolina experienced over the past decade. I tend to agree. Perhaps you don’t.

Surely we can agree, however, that just sticking with the status quo in education policy was not a viable option. By international standards, America has a very expensive education system producing at best mediocre results. In other words, being average in America won’t help North Carolina prosper in the highly competitive world economy.

In 2014, the legislature will reportedly put additional resources into public schools, including a teacher-pay hike. I agree with that decision. In fact, Gov. Pat McCrory proposed a teacher-pay hike in 2013 but unanticipated Medicaid costs forestalled the option.

Simply layering more state dollars atop an ineffective delivery system for education would have been unwise. The system needed the reforms McCrory and the legislature enacted. Now, perhaps, our tax dollars will be put to better use.


Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.