Point of View

Lawmakers’ disastrous path to an inferior NC education

May 28, 2013 

I am a proud North Carolinian – proud to be a product of public schools, proud to have spent a career in public education, proud to have served as state superintendent of Public Instruction for two terms and proud of the broad-based leadership that made our state’s public schools the envy of many others.

From 2004 until last fall, my wife and I lived in Mississippi as Hope served as the bishop of Mississippi’s United Methodist Church. Our friends and colleagues there often looked to North Carolina as a Southern state doing the right things in public education.

I recall the days when North Carolina was considered an educational backwater. But Republicans and Democrats, professional educators and business leaders decided that our children deserved better than 48th or 49th in public education. Tar Heels grasped the direct connection between excellent schools and economic growth. Our state developed a great legacy of investing in public education.

The investment paid off. Higher achievement scores, lower dropout rates and competitive international comparisons of student performance reflect our progress. Though much remains to be done to ensure that schools work well in all places for all children, we advanced steadily over the past few decades.

Ours became one of the most rapidly improving systems of public education in the United States. People from across the country wanted to know how it happened and how we were narrowing performance gaps across social lines. The NAACP’s 4th National Education Summit honored our state with the Daisy Bates Educational Advocacy Award for progress in access, equity and accountability.

How sad we were to move back to Raleigh last fall and find some legislative leaders committed to a sprint to the bottom. After being far more competitive, North Carolina now ranks 48th in per pupil expenditure and 46th in how well we reward our hard-working teachers. And some in the General Assembly appear poised to make it worse.

Here’s just a sample of the proposed policies that stand to hurt our public schools and our students:

1 Massive cuts to school funding. This means thousands of lost teaching positions. It means crowded classrooms and the loss of teacher assistants in early elementary grades, even though research shows that smaller class sizes help students, especially struggling students.

2Vouchers. If you want to know where money to pay for teachers is going, one place to look is at the proposed voucher legislation. Proponents refer to them as “opportunity scholarships.” Vouchers are bad public policy, snatching millions of dollars away from public schools that desperately need them. We support the choice of private education, but taxpayers will foot the bill for some parents to send their children to private schools. Legislators backing these vouchers will tell you that the vouchers are for disadvantaged students, but the bulk of these vouchers will go to middle-income residents – and you’ll get to pay their children’s private school tuition. Vouchers are an expensive, divisive program with virtually no record of improving overall student performance.

3Reduced funding for pre-kindergarten. This is a senseless and self-defeating proposal. Investing in pre-K is not just good for kids – it’s good for all of us. Research shows that quality pre-K returns $5-$13 for every dollar spent by reducing costs for remedial education, social services and criminal justice.

Just as the nation took notice during our impressive period of investment and progress, the nation will witness the backslide. High-end employers and investors will take their money elsewhere; no one wants to send their dollars to places that are weak on educational support and noted for social strife. The racial and economic divisions in our communities will deepen. Opportunity for those living at the margins will shrink. That’s not just wrong, that’s bad wrong.

This is not the North Carolina we have been or want to be. The good news is that it’s not too late for our legislators to do the right thing. Residents must study these crucial education issues and call their representatives in the General Assembly before these disastrous policy and budget proposals become law.

Mike Ward of Raleigh served as state superintendent of Public Instruction from 1997 to 2004.

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