Point of View

Wrongly narrowing the purpose of public education

September 3, 2013 

It has been my honor to attend and, when asked, speak at the funerals of my co-workers at two large state agencies. I am always moved by what I learn of them beyond what is visible in office meetings, heard in hallway pleasantries or asked for in the job description.

The person of whom little leadership or judgment is asked on the job turns out to be of enormous talent, a pillar in the church, a force for good in their community and the matriarch or patriarch of a remarkable family. We are better for the whole of their life and talents.

We must be so much more than just what we are asked to do at work.

Broad knowledge, the ability to teach and inspire, budget and plan, partner and build consensus, and engage community issues are seen in few job descriptions or paychecks but the big ones. However, they are essential in every home that hopes to better the next generation and build, family by family, a better state. A substantial amount of what each generation has gathered and given to the next has come from continually improving public education that is constitutionally available to all.

Gov. Pat McCrory is setting out to narrow the purpose of our public schools. He said he wants “to adjust (his) education curriculum to what business and commerce needs.” If students and their parents want other things beyond job-connected learning, he feels they “should go to private school.” If we limit public schools to merely feeding the current needs of business, we condemn those who cannot pay tuition to the shallow end of the labor pool as available skills, rented at the lowest cost and unable to support much more for their children.

For the General Assembly and the governor to take, in the face of a growing population, thousands of teachers and millions of dollars out of our classrooms dilutes what we offer to most North Carolina children. To grind down teacher pay and expenditures per child so that they match a handful of states at the bottom of the nation reflects thoughtless leadership that is clearly comfortable with less for those who cannot buy more. To refuse teachers a pay raise, rob them of job stability and then cut any bonus for obtaining a master’s degree guarantees departures and further decline.

The shameless, demoralizing rhetoric blaming teachers only serves to draw our attention away from the damage being inflicted upon low- and middle-income families by constraining classroom teachers to offer less to many more students.

If we fund, operate and measure public education like a business, with the purpose of meeting current employment needs as cost-effectively as possible, we leave the rest of what public education has been that is essential to better jobs and generations to chance and those who can pay. The cost of growing this gap is the limiting of possibility for so many lives and what we can invent, cure, teach and be. While it’s wonderful when one chooses to follow a parent’s footsteps, it is a disaster to be stuck in them.

Our current business leaders seem silent when their predecessors could be counted on to fight for a well-educated workforce, strong local markets and healthy communities. With the legislature willing to sacrifice the needs of working people, these leaders have selfishly scrambled to shift much of the risk and cost of doing business onto employees. While business gets tax breaks, employees get gutted unemployment and workers compensation benefits, higher interest rates, limited safety and health protections and a bar to local standards of better wages and benefits. Their new tax advantages come at the expense of those whose future they are taxing by hurting public schools.

Like it or not, we all have a big stake in public education succeeding. There will not be a high-rise office building tall enough or a gated community big enough to insulate the privileged from the broad effect of the bad choices they are making.

Harry Payne, senior counsel for Policy and Law at the N.C. Justice Center in Raleigh, was the state commissioner of Labor from 1992 to 2001.

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