5 Ecosystem Issues Affecting Education Innovation in North Carolina

Education Innovation in NC Schools during SBSI panel




These are the words our practitioners chose when asked to describe North Carolina’s education ecosystem at the recent Sustainable Business and Social Impact Conference.  More importantly, these words quickly came to life as Darrell AlisonDawn Arthur (Fuqua MBA ’13), Alex Quigley, Minnie Forte-Brown, shared their diverse perspectives on the challenges and opportunities North Carolina’s education system is facing at this moment in time.

At CASE, we believe no one leader or organization can solve our greatest global challenges alone.  Instead, real social impact requires an ecosystem approach: an understanding of the broad environment in which one works and strategies to shape that environment in pursuit of dynamic problem solving.   During this SBSI education session, panelists highlighted several ecosystem issues:

  • Tradition and turf are powerful
  • Collaboration is tough
  • Opportunity for innovation is everywhere
  • Sustained impact requires a dynamic talent pipeline
  • Leadership matters. Always.

Tradition and Turf

As longtime Durham Public Schools Board of Education member and former chair Minnie Forte-Brown noted, traditional school districts today educate 87% of our North Carolina’s children.  As the entity that will likely always serve the majority, public schools’ scale and potential for impact is unmatched; however, the tradition and territoriality that at times accompany public schools’ reach can also hold back innovation.


While the panelists approached education from different perspectives and models, they clearly shared a common vision of opportunity for all North Carolina children. Actually achieving that vision requires collaboration across boundaries.   An ecosystem approach to social change assumes interconnectedness and interdependencies among diverse stakeholders; however, true collaboration necessitates stakeholder willingness to explore all options that may lead to change – not just the traditional, accepted strategies of any one group.   As a pioneering member of both a public school board of education and charter school board of directors, Forte-Brown called for education leaders to focus on collaborative efforts to create a system of great schools, instead of myopically focusing on what it will take to create one great school system.


When thinking about innovation, KIPP- Eastern North Carolina Chief Operating Officer Dawn Arthur and her team first center themselves on the question:  Are we doing everything we can to protect and help kids? In the spirit of that question, PAVE Academy Managing Director Alex Quigley noted significant room for innovation in the ways that district schools and charter schools might partner.  Specifically, the scale of traditional school districts positions them as contract providers for services that charter schools need, but aren’t built to add value in.  Partnering with charter schools to provide services such as IT, transportation and nutrition could generate new revenue for traditional district schools.

Charter school accountability and reach are also ripe for innovation according to Quigley and Parents for Educational Freedom in NC President Darrell Allison.  As innovative school governance structures, charter schools have increased flexibility in areas such as staffing and curriculum.  In exchange for that flexibility, these schools should also have increased external accountability, according to Quigley who also serves as chair of the NC Charter School Advisory Board.  Allison called for thinking through how charter innovations can reach more of North Carolina’s rural students.  According to Allison, 47 of NC’s 100 counties do not currently have any charter schools.

Leadership & Talent

Social impact is fundamentally people-work. And in education, this couldn’t be more true.  As Quigley said, “Great schools don’t happen without great leadership.”  As North Carolina looks to scale charter school innovations across the state to reach the more than 30,000 families currently on school waitlists, both Quigley and Allison called for innovation in our state’s principal pipelines, while Forte-Brown, noted that regardless of school model, no leader is more important that the teacher in the classroom.

Because leadership at every level is critical, panelists called on MBA students to put their skills to use in North Carolina’s education ecosystem.  Regardless of school model or geographic location, skills in strategy, finance, and talent management are needed to help ensure that every child gets the educational opportunities she deserves.