Raleigh, N.C. — Bill Cobey is a former Republican state party chairman, city manager, congressman, athletic director and teacher who now finds himself chairman of the North Carolina Board of Education at a time when the GOP-led legislature is putting forward policies to overhaul North Carolina's K-12 system.
All this from a guy who says he couldn't read until he was in the third grade.
"My passion is literacy," Cobey said. "I don't know how you live in the world and function without being literate."
Cobey said he was helped by a mother who recognized his problem and was able to get him special help from a Washington, D.C., private school. That helps explain how one of the people charged with overseeing public education in North Carolina views the debate over a school voucher program in the House budget that would give public tax dollars to some children who want to attend private schools.
"I'm for it personally," he said. "I don't believe one size fits all in education."
He said the voucher bill will save the state money in the long run, although he acknowledges there may be some short-term "adjustment issues."
That said, he does not embrace all parts of the school choice agenda being pushed by various members of the legislature. He says that a plan to put public charter schools – publicly funded but privately run schools – under the oversight of a separate statewide school board is a bad idea.
"If I have anything to do with it, it will never be set up," he said.
Technology represents an opportunity
During a lunch with reporters facilitated by the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Cobey said that his role was to implement the policies handed down from the governor and the legislature, not to take an activist stand.
"You realize you're a servant leader, there are others making decisions, and you just need to implement the best you can and be a resource for them, so that they don't do something that's not going to play out well as public policy," Cobey said.
That stance is much different that the posture taken by Bill Harrison, who was appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue and was an outspoken advocate for more public school funding and in setting a direction for the state's education system.
That said, Cobey ticked off a litany of things he has seen around the state that have impressed him and that he believes should be spread. Focusing on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – courses helps students learn to become lifelong learners, he said, and year-round schools seem to have had some success.
Asked what one thing he might do to improve the state's education system, Cobey said that, aside from raising teacher salaries, he would put technology – in the form of laptop computers – in the hands of most students. It's an idea, he said, he's seen work in Orange County schools, as well as Mooresville public schools near Charlotte.
"Those are the quietest schools I've ever been in," Cobey said. "I saw students more engaged than I've ever seen in the learning process."
He added later, "Let's get technology in the hands of every school district, every school in our state, and let's spend the money that's necessary to do that...Let's get on with it. If it's good for Mooresville and it's good for Orange County, let's get it going everywhere."
Cobey was pressed on questions related to school funding and whether the state was doing enough to adequately fund teacher salaries. Like many legislative leaders, Cobey said the state should put more money toward education programs but that the state is strapped for cash. In particular, Cobey pointed to the state's Medicaid program as gobbling a greater share of the state budget.
Other areas touched on by Cobey included:
Common Core: Cobey said the state should not discard its move to national "common core" standards just because there are some problems with putting it in place, particularly with testing. "The common core has been put in statute by the General Assembly. It's board policy of the board I chair, so I will be working to make sure its implemented the best I can."
Testing: Asked about Gov. Pat McCrory's wish to cut down on testing, Cobey said he was sympathetic to the idea. However, he said, calls for fewer standardized tests have to be balanced against calls for more accountability for public schools by McCrory and others. "We need data. So how do you get data? You have to do testing."