School advocates go on tour to sound alarm about NC legislation

lbonner@newsobserver.comMay 10, 2013 

— Public school advocates opposed to the legislature’s priorities paint an image of classrooms stuffed with children taught by an underpaid teacher handling the bigger class alone because the teacher assistants are gone.

And some of those children aren’t prepared for school because they couldn’t get into N.C. Pre-K.

A new group called Public Schools First NC stopped in Wake County on Friday as part of a statewide tour to bring attention to what they say are legislative proposals that undermine public education. Supporters gathered in a park near an elementary school, where Bob Etheridge, a former congressman, legislator and state superintendent of public instruction, rang a school bell as if to sound an alarm.

The crowd behind him held signs showing teacher pay and funding per student are among the lowest in the nation.

“The quantity of bad ideas in Raleigh is absolutely scary,” he said.

GOP legislators and their supporters say the changes are improving education by focusing on what’s best for children rather than what’s good for teachers and institutions.

Proposals that have critics circling are the same ones that supporters have framed as needed reforms.

A House bill would have only 4-year-olds from the state’s poorest families eligible for N.C. Pre-K under new income guidelines. The bill would put the eligibility at 100 percent of the federal poverty level, which this year is $19,530 for a family of three, down from about 200 percent. A Senate bill would allow schools to put more than 24 children per classroom in kindergarten through third grade. The proposal to get rid of class size limits comes as Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed eliminating money for teacher assistants in second and third grades and instead hiring more teachers.

Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, sees the proposals differently than Public Schools First.

“I think there is a renewed emphasis on giving power to parents and localities to be able to create the system that best meets the needs of their localities or their students,” he said.

That’s evident in the voucher bill, which will give parents more school options, he said. The bill, which is expected to be heard in committee on Tuesday, provides $4,200 a year in tuition aid for parents meeting income guidelines who want to send their children to private school.

The bill erasing class size limits will allow districts to decide how best to spend money, Stoops said. And the move to change income eligibility for Pre-K is based on research that says that preschool provides the most benefit to the poorest students, he added.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican, said the “sky is falling” warnings from opponents in the past have not proved true. The new law requiring students to read at grade level by the end of third grade in order to be promoted is evidence of Republican interest in improving education, he said. Public education is going to get more money this year, Tillman said, though he would not say how much.

“We will be putting additional money in K-3,” Tillman said. “They will be reading before they get out of third grade. That’s going to be a big plus.”

But Tim Valentine, a former legislator and congressman, said the legislature is undermining a public education system that has been key to the state’s progress.

“We will revert to something that is not very pleasant to contemplate,” said Valentine, who spoke at the news conference.

Public Schools First held a news conference in Charlotte this week and has scheduled appearances in Asheville, Fayetteville, Wilmington, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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