Filling Bill Friday’s shoes

Filling Bill Friday’s shoes

The last speaker at the memorial service Wednesday for former UNC President William Friday was his longtime assistant Virginia Taylor who told the audience in Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus that the torch of Bill Friday’s life’s work was now in their hands.

Former Governor Jim Hunt echoed that sentiment in his remarks at the ceremony and in an interview the day before with News and Views, a radio show produced by NC Policy Watch.

Hunt said what Friday would want us to do now “is step into his shoes and to walk forward and to have big, bold ideas” for North Carolina.

No one can replace Bill Friday. But the question raised by his untimely passing is who will step up with those big and bold ideas? Who will accept that torch of public service that burned so brightly for education and opportunity and social justice in Friday’s hands?

The most likely candidates were packed in Memorial Hall Wednesday morning as top state and national leaders in business, education, philanthropy and politics all came to pay their respects.

And while the tributes to the life and work of Bill Friday were moving, it’s not clear that all the leaders who were listening took the message to heart.

A day after the service, Governor Beverly Perdue announced she was shifting $20 million to allow more than 6,000 at-risk four year olds to enroll in the state’s nationally recognized pre-school program, NC PreK.

That move may not meet the definition of big and bold but it’s a decision that is wise and welcome, and one that surely Bill Friday would have applauded, finding a way to help more children overcome the hurdles of poverty to succeed in school and life—a cause at the core of Friday’s lifelong crusade for fairness and opportunity.

House Speaker Thom Tillis, who was there Wednesday to honor Friday, issued a joint statement with Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger after Perdue’s announcement, calling it an “expensive political stunt” that results in a “temporary expansion of government daycare.”

The statement perfectly illustrates the pathetic nature of the current political debate and the right-wing ideology that defines it.

Tillis and Berger may have concerns with where Perdue found the money, but they didn’t just voice that disagreement, they also disparaged the widely supported preschool program that numerous studies show helps low-income children do better in school.

The dismissal of NC PreK by the leaders of the General Assembly, as offensive as it is, is not much of a surprise.

Their party’s candidate for governor claims every day that public schools in North Carolina are broken, even as the high school graduation rate rises while teachers and principals struggle to help kids in the face of devastating budget cuts and the dispiriting rhetoric from politicians like Tillis and Berger.

Our schools are not broken and NC PreK is not temporary daycare.

Former Governor Hunt told the Memorial Hall audience Wednesday that Bill Friday was North Carolina’s greatest builder. And he was.

Too many of our current political leaders are the opposite, not builders of anything, but dismantlers of public institutions like schools, pre-k programs and the public university system that is Friday’s greatest living monument.

It is not clear at all just a week after Bill Friday left us who will fill his shoes. But it’s painfully clear who will not.

(Photo: UNC – Chapel Hill)