State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison is asking his members to champion public education in a political environment where lawmakers are increasingly open to alternatives.
Harrison told board members Thursday that they should engage in an "aggressive communications effort" that talks about the value of public education and the state's belief in quality for all children.
The board finds itself having to reinforce a basic message about public education as it comes under pressure from skeptical legislators who seem interested in chipping away at state and local authority over taxpayer-funded schools.
A new law offers tax credits to parents of disabled children who send their children to private schools, and one of its champions in the legislature wants to expand it. Another law allows private companies to run "dropout recovery" programs in school districts using taxpayer money.
An early version of a bill that removed the 100-school cap on charter schools limited the state board's authority over charters in favor of a new commission. Legislators removed oversight of the state preschool program from the state Department of Public Instruction and put pre-K under the Department of Health and Human Services.
"We're dismantling public education," said Earlie Coe, chairman of the Surry County Board of Education. He sits on the state board as an adviser.
State Rep. Paul Stam, the House majority leader, said the talk of destroying public education is political rhetoric.
"There is no attempt to dismantle or destroy," said the Apex Republican, but parents should have more options.
"Parents generally know what's best for their children, and it's good for the state to empower their choices," he said.
Stam has worked for tax credits for private school education for years, and hopes to expand the existing law in future legislative sessions. He pointed to Pell Grants and G.I. Bill benefits as other examples of public money paying for private education.
"There is a huge difference between requiring education of the public and requiring that all education be provided by a public agency," he said. "I don't agree with the concept that the teacher needs to be a public employee."
Education spending is in decline, but state leaders don't agree on the impact.
A $74 million discretionary cut to local school districts is built into next year's budget, bringing the total they must return to the state to $503.1 million.
An analysis of education job losses by the conservative Civitas Institute found that there are 4,800 fewer public school employees this year, but 4,600 more employees paid with state money.
School employees are paid by local, state or federal funds. Federally funded school employment dropped by 7,400, according to Civitas, and school employees paid with local money dropped by 2,000. Federal stimulus money was used to pay for teachers in the recession. As that money started to dry up, state money was used to fill part of the hole, resulting in more state-funded teachers.
Schools still have fewer teachers and assistant principals, Harrison said, and students feel the effects.
Harrison devoted his online message this month to the issue. "When you talk to local teachers, principals and superintendents, you will most likely hear about students sharing textbooks, fewer course offerings, longer bus routes, a lack of funds for professional development and the list goes on," he wrote. "What you won't hear is talk about 'state-funded' versus 'federally-funded' teaching positions. It is a shame that some have chosen to claim that they have supported public education while they ignore the many struggles our schools are facing today."