A fighter for schools

Jim Goodnight shouldn’t have a care in the world. A founder and CEO of SAS (pronounced sass), the giant, privately held analytics software company that just hums along, Goodnight, 71, loves what he does and is a billionaire many times over. But sitting in my office recently, Goodnight, who’s never shy about speaking his mind and admittedly appears a little hangdog on even his best days, looks positively glum. What’s got Goodnight’s goat? It’s not slow sales, punk profits, or even global warming. It’s members of his own Republican Party who, he says, are gutting the education system in his home state of North Carolina and nationwide as well.

“They keep cutting taxes, which lowers revenues, and then they have to cut the state budget and freeze teachers’ salaries,” Goodnight tells me. “The average starting salary for teachers in North Carolina is $30,800.” Educators in the state have received just one raise since 2008. Indeed, the (Raleigh, N.C.) News and Observer reports that North Carolina ranks 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in pay for new teachers (Montana at $27,300, South Dakota at $29,900, and Missouri at $30,100 rank lower), and that the Tar Heel State led the nation in declining pay for teachers over the past decade, with pay down 15% when adjusted for inflation. Goodnight says that teachers are leaving his state and moving to Virginia ($37,800) and even South Carolina ($32,300) for better pay. The losers are North Carolina’s children, particularly poorer ones who can’t afford the option of private school. “You can talk all you want about the income gap,” says Goodnight, “but if you don’t get education right, it won’t go away.”

Goodnight tells me he’s met with state leaders about the problems they’re creating, but with little success. What about seeking help from politicians at the national level? “I’ve done that, and they tell me it’s a state issue,” he says. “The only problem is that states are doing a bad job.” And so, as we’ve seen all too often in recent years, when government screws up, it’s a businessperson, Goodnight in this case, who tries to fill the breach. It’s only because here we have a Republican CEO countering his fellow Republicans by funding education that this story is worth noting.

So what exactly is Goodnight doing? Well, six years ago SAS — a famously paternalistic outfit and a mainstay of our Best Companies to Work For list — made available to all educators a package of free software, called Curriculum Pathways, for middle school and high school students. In 2013 alone, more than 42,000 schools and nearly 120,000 teachers in all 50 states used the software. Curriculum Pathways is apparently especially popular in the U.K. SAS also provides free software packages to university-level students. Of course, there is self-interest involved — a software company is getting young people to use software that includes some of its own tools — but that is hardly Goodnight’s aim, particularly with his software for younger students. “I can’t think of anything that’s more important to the state of North Carolina or to the country,” says Goodnight. He tells me the company has invested more than $100 million in Curriculum Pathways since its creation in 1999.

It’s nice to see someone who’s known for speaking his mind put his money where his mouth is.

This story is from the May 19, 2014 issue of Fortune.

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