With debut book, a new chapter for EdNC

By Catherine Komp, 

Newsletter Editor

Sometimes all it takes is a brief note to spark a big idea. 

Last year, EdNC’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief Mebane Rash got a package in the mail from their former Chief of Staff Analisa Sorrells. It was a book Sorrells contributed to about the economic engines of community colleges, published by Harvard University Press. Sorrells attached a note encouraging EdNC to do something similar. 

Rash said they got started right away.

“It’s hard to imagine how you fit a book into this life of being on the road all the time in schools and community colleges,” said Rash. “But the idea that each of us could write a chapter, it’s very comfortable to our team ethos.” 

EdNC already uses multiple platforms and products to distribute their reporting, research and analysis on education throughout the state: their website, newsletters, social media, Youtube, podcasts and lots of community engagement. The goal of North Carolina’s Choice: Why our public schools matter is to encourage more and more constructive conversation about the role of public systems in local economies and as anchor institutions in their local communities.

“People don’t think about the school system as a business,” said Scott Elliott, the former superintendent of Watauga County Schools, in the new book. “But the financial impact of a school system ripples throughout the local economy because of all of the types of workers we employ.”

The book came out earlier this month and is available for free as a PDF and for $5 in print. (And you’ll notice a familiar name in the credits; former NC Local Editor Eric Frederick is one of the book’s editors.)

I had the opportunity to recently chat with Mebane about the goals of the new book, what they learned putting it together and their plans to work with local Chambers of Commerce, libraries and independent bookstores to help encourage conversations around the book. 

Mebane Rash (left) in a still from a video from the SMT Center.

NC Local: How did you get started with figuring out where to start? Did you tap into other people who had published a book before? 

Mebane Rash: I made a couple of inquiries about actually having it published, published, and there were some folks that were interested, but the process was just going to take entirely too long. We were ready to go. And so Derick Lee on our team, who is one of our reporters/storytellers, had self-published his own books. He, in addition to working with us, is also a poet, and so he became our guide on how to do this: how to get an ISDN number, how to do this on Amazon’s platform. And he created a playbook. Then Molly Urquhart on our team, who is our Vice President and COO, once all the chapters were written, she managed the editorial process and getting the book published. 

But it was Derick on our team who taught us how to do it. 

There is so much involved beyond just the content, right? 

Yep. And we learned a lot [laughs]. We would do it differently next time. We would have a standard footnote policy ahead of time, for instance [laughs]. 

I noticed there’s a lot of footnotes! I wanted to ask about the audience. Is the book aimed at your current audience or are you hoping to reach new readers? 

We are hoping to reach new readers. What we learned in our last visit to all 58 community colleges was really about the economic impact of community colleges on their communities. And we realized the same economic impact reports that we were researching and using to guide our blitz, those have never been done in North Carolina for the school districts. And the school industry is an $11.2 billion industry in North Carolina. In more than half of our counties, the districts are the largest employer in the district, and no one has ever really talked out loud about this part of the role of public schools in the fabric of our society. 

Our team sees that because we’re on the road all the time. So we picked this kind of narrow approach that we wanted to take to the book but we are trying to reach new audiences. We think that local Chambers of Commerce, business owners who benefit from all of the purchasing power of school districts across North Carolina, all the people who support independent bookstores and have book clubs. It’s all those different sorts of people who aren’t just educators that we are trying to sort of pull into the orbit of EdNC.

You said there’s been no economic impact studies of K-12 school systems? 

The legislature partnered with private philanthropy to do an in depth economic impact study of community colleges. It’s incredible. They did economic impact statements for the system of community colleges. They did one for each community college and they looked at the economic impact of particular programs. And so this was sort of the cadillac of economic impact studies and that’s never been done in North Carolina. 

Is doing the same for K-12 schools on the radar of policymakers? 

I don’t think anyone’s interested in making that argument right now. 

Well, that brings me to one of my next questions, which is the title, North Carolina’s Choice: Why our public schools matter. Are you reclaiming the word “choice”? 

Because of the work we do, we don’t think it has to be reclaimed, right? We see the choices that public schools provide each and every day. I was just literally in Charlotte Mecklenburg schools, watching a presentation from the public school district’s Director of School Choice. And so I think how it gets talked about out loud is different than how choice actually is in North Carolina. 

But what we haven’t talked about is choice relative to economic impact. And in North Carolina, go look at the headlines, North Carolina loves being number one for business. We’ve been number one for business two years in a row and across all lines of difference. As a state, we love that. And public schools and the opportunities public schools have provided for students, for employers, is a key and integral part of that. And that’s the piece of it that we wanted to prompt more conversation about. 

There are seven chapters. And you begin with a pretty thorough history of public education going back to 1705 and Elizabeth City. Why did you want to start with such a thorough history? 

We believe that history sometimes repeats itself, especially if the history is lost. On page one of chapter one, it talks about this report that was produced by DPI, the Department of Public Instruction, back in 1993 and it was written by this Superintendent of Public Instruction at the time. But it talked powerfully, we thought, about why public schools came to be in North Carolina and how it was because of illiteracy and poverty that existed in predominantly rural communities at the time. And that is what we want to at least make sure the state is talking out loud about as they make this move to expand school choice— is that it’s not just parents having choice, it’s are we recreating those same environments for economic distress in rural areas? And that’s an unknown at this point. We don’t know the ripple effects of this. 

The next chapter is the one you wrote: “Seeing school districts as big business and superintendents as CEOs.” And you included some powerful quotes from former Superintendent of Watauga County Schools Scott Elliott like this one: “We buy a lot of power, but we also buy a lot of light bulbs.” What did you want to surface about the business side of the public school ecosystem?

Every so often there are news articles by us and other outlets about how in many counties public schools are the largest employer. And that number has gone down in the last 10 or 15 years. But what we don’t really talk about out loud and what I think is eye opening to people is to talk about the purchasing power, like how much money these districts are managing and the ripple effects for that, all the different small business employers in those counties that benefit from that. I don’t think we talk about all the different kinds of workers that work in public school districts. We think they’re all educators, but it’s this wide, diverse set of workers that is required to run a district. And by virtue of having a disproportionately educated workforce, because it is around education, that attracts other industries to these counties. I thought Scott Elliott did a really beautiful job explaining not just that they’re the top employer, but kind of the role they play in moving money and investing in creating the local economy of these rural counties. 

And connected to that, you have a chapter titled: “Employers need diversity across place, race, ethnicity, and learning differences – and so do public schools” — examining the business case for diversity in public education. 

Right now with the legislation that’s being considered about masks and one of the news articles I was reading by another outlet this morning once again had companies talking about they’re attracted and they want to build their business in North Carolina because we have this diverse, educated workforce. We have the most HBCUs in North Carolina. All of that. So I do think that the companies that are choosing to call North Carolina home want a diverse, educated workforce and continue to state that as a priority. 

Another really important role that the book highlights is public schools as community connectors and anchor institutions. I’m sure many parents, students and teachers know this value. But what did you want to bring out about the role public schools play in the bigger community, especially in these rural counties? 

Caroline Parker on our team wrote that chapter and Caroline is our Director of all things rural reporting, but also partnerships. And she, like me, travels all the time and has seen first hand the role of schools in communities as anchor institutions. Last year EdNC played a role in Haywood County when Pactiv Evergreen closed. This was the state’s largest layoff last year and because we have been out in that community so much, there was 100 year historic flooding. We were there during the pandemic studying how they were doing education during a pandemic because we thought they would emerge with best practices and they did. And we see the schools are the community, everyone in the community comes together in that county for Friday night football. But there’s also a powerful faith community in that county, in many counties, and so we also have a reporter that reports at the nexus of faith and education, which is another place we see public schools playing this anchor institution role, that churches also play. 

I was in a district the other day, Chatham County, and they dispensed more medication to student-aged kids than all the urgent cares combined. And I don’t think people think about this part of what public schools do. This morning when I was in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the president of Bank of America of Charlotte was talking to an audience about how he worked with health leaders in the community to put 50 clinics in schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and that it has become a key provider of healthcare for students in the county. 

The book closes up talking about the changes with the Republican-controlled legislature, the politicization of public education and the impacts of that preventing more energy and resources to how schools should be transforming to really serve students in the tech-based economy. How do you get people past the politics and polarization to really talk about these issues? 

Well, I think one you write a book. We’re incentivizing people to have book clubs. We’re hoping that districts distribute the books to educators; many districts have a book that they encourage their whole team to read over the summer. We really think people need to be talking out loud, not just about the politics of what’s happening, but the economics of what’s happening. So this is one way to try to make sure that we’re having those conversations in North Carolina. 

I think the NC Chamber has done a really incredible job framing this other conversation that would be happening but for the politics of it, which is: How do you shape shift a system of education to continuously improve given all the technological changes that we’re facing and making the case that that is what we should be focused on, especially if the state wants to continue to be #1 in business? 

Have you talked to Chamber reps about the book and hosting book clubs or community discussions? 

Yes. We partner with the Chamber and have shared it with them. We are getting ready to send it to all of the local chambers and everyone on the board of the local chambers around the state. 

And you have this great discussion guide, and are offering gift cards to encourage people to send in additional questions. What else are you doing with engagement around the book? 

We are going to distribute it to independent bookstores around the state free of charge and let them make money on it, if they want to make money on it. All we ask in exchange for that is, as independent bookstores do, bring people together and have conversation about it. We don’t want people reading this in silos. We want them talking about it out loud, whether it’s in Sunday school class or professional learning communities or book clubs, wherever that is. And then we’ll also be reaching out and distributing it to all the public libraries and encouraging them to have public conversations about it. 

How could reporters across the state use this book to localize their reporting? 

I think they could use the chapter about the role of the public schools and the local economies to structure conversations with their superintendents. And I also think they could use the book to frame some reporting about are we as different communities focused on the right thing? Are we focused on the political or are we focused on the economic? 

What did you learn during this process and is it something you do again? 

The thing I personally and professionally learned that I will take with me is the power of just asking. I had no idea what my team would say, right? And my team over and over again, whether I’m asking them to blitz all 58 community colleges in one week or write a book, is game. And they’re game because they love this work and they see it as a privilege to do this work. 

When Caroline Parker was done writing her chapter, she asked to have dinner with me and she sat and read me her chapter out loud. It makes me cry, even now. She wrote a beautiful chapter. And so we think of all of these things, whether it’s being an educator or being a reporter, as a job. And it’s so much more. All of us who are working in education feel called to do this work. And that’s the thing I’ll take away, from a leadership perspective, just being willing to ask people if they’re game and that can be hard and scary as a leader. 

Practically, we learned a lot and I think one of the things we’re going to probably do is ask Derick to write a playbook for other organizations, whether it’s an organization or a news outlet, on how to do this. He really was our guide teaching us how you practically do it and we did learn a lot. We did not have a standard formatting system that we asked reporters to follow for their chapters and that was a real bear at the end [laughs]. 

We’ve never written or published a book, and I think we thought it would happen a lot faster than it did. We learned a lot along the way about editing and self-publishing. But it’s out and I think we’re collectively really proud of it.

Learn more about EdNC’s new book and find a free copy here. EdNC invites the media to write news articles about the book or publish this article as an op-ed. Find EdNC’s republication guidelines here.

NC Local News Workshop