Was Education Secretary Richard Riley’s speech at Southern High School in Durham worth $300,000?

The invited guests–public-school officials, mainly–streamed in from all over the state and beyond. “Did you really come from Tennessee?” I asked one of them, looking at her license plate. “Been driving all morning,” she said and nodded. The cheapskate in me started calculating: 1,500 folks at, say, $200 per day and up, spending most or all of the day at this. And that’s not even counting their mileage, or Riley’s costs.

Riley’s visit tickled North Carolina’s school leaders, from Gov. Jim Hunt to Southern’s principal Henry Pankey, known for his bullhorn blasts at unbecoming conduct in the hallways. Two years ago, Southern’s results on end-of-grade tests were dreadful. When Pankey arrived last year test results improved and Southern became, in the state’s terminology, an “exemplary school.” Test results are up a bit statewide, too, which means Hunt is an exemplary governor, at least according to fellow Democrat Riley.

So it was quite a festive atmosphere–a feather in the cap, as it were–but for the presence of Vernon Robinson and his tiny band of protesters out on the sidewalk. Robinson, erstwhile Republican candidate for state office and still the bête noire of the public-school establishment, put a full-page ad in The Herald-Sun asking Riley: “How dare you come to North Carolina, much less Durham?” Robinson’s ad decried the fact that just 30 percent of the black male students who entered Durham’s high schools with the class of ’99 graduated last year. (Another 18 percent are still in Durham schools, and an unknown number are in other districts, according to school officials.)

Robinson’s answer? He’s for charter schools and private-school vouchers, anything to give parents an alternative to the traditional public schools. Lately, he’s been raising money from corporate types and giving out $1,000 scholarships to parents who want to take their kids out of a public school. Donna Couch is one such mom. Standing alongside Robinson, she said her son Brandon, a fourth-grader, is doing all right in a Durham public school, but she thinks he’ll be pushed a lot harder in a private or parochial school. “They’re trying,” she said of the Durham schools, “but they’re not trying hard enough.”

This event gave Couch, Robinson and friends a forum to express their disgust. They made the nightly news on three local TV stations, as did Riley’s reply. “Vouchers will drain funds from public education. They divert us from the real challenge of lifting up all our children,” he said.

That is the challenge. The N.C. Justice & Community Development Center’s recent report, “Exposing the Gap,” documents the “tragic picture of minority educational achievement” throughout North Carolina and says the state’s failure to tackle the problem–with real money and real commitment–is “morally unacceptable.” If Riley’s visit and Robinson’s protest made us stop and think what to do about that, then maybe it was worth the $300K.