A forum will bring refreshing talk of stronger public schools

May 2, 2014 

  • If you go

    What: A statewide forum on “Keeping Public Schools Strong”

    Where: N.C. State’s McKimmon Center, 1101 Gorman St., Raleigh

    When: 9 a.m to 3:30 p.m. Saturday

    The forum is free, but attendees must register at publicschoolsfirstnc.org

The North Carolina General Assembly keeps passing or proposing supposed improvements in K-12 education that have the perverse effect of being bad for public schools.

The Republican-led legislature has approved vouchers and an expansion of charter schools that drain money from traditional public schools. It has imposed a reading level requirement that could keep many third-graders from moving on to fourth grade. It has passed a law that seeks to end teacher tenure and has allowed average teacher salaries to shrink against inflation and fall to 46th lowest in the nation. It eliminated thousands of teacher assistants while expanding class sizes.

Now some Republicans are pushing to drop the state’s commitment to the Common Core State Standards, the national education goals adopted by 45 states. And this week brought a strange and destructive proposal to allow parents to send their children to any public school in the state regardless of where they live. That may sound nutty, but it’s approved by the American Legislative Exchange Council, so it’s got a chance with the current group in charge.

With this pummeling of public schools as background, it’s heartening to see the advocacy group Public Schools First NC host its first statewide forum Saturday at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center in Raleigh. The forum has a title that almost sounds like Greek compared to the typical language these days in the capital: “Keeping NC Public Schools Strong.”

The forum brings together an impressive and diverse lineup of legislators and education experts. Of particular note is the participation of Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a conservative Republican and legislative leader. It’s encouraging that he agreed to attend an event sponsored by a generally progressive group. Stam will be part of a legislative roundtable with General Assembly Democratic Sen. Josh Stein and Rep. Rosa Gill.

Public Schools First, a statewide, nonpartisan organization, has done well to lure as a keynote speaker David Kirp, a University of California, Berkeley, professor who is emerging as a popular advocate for public schools. Kirp’s book about the turnaround of a poor school system, “Improbable Scholars,” won the American Educational Research Association’s 2013 Outstanding Book Award.

Among other notable participants will be Karyn Dickerson, N.C. Teacher of the Year for 2013; Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy; Barnett Berry, CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality; Edward Fiske, former education editor of The New York Times; and Mike Ward, former state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction.

What the group can expect to hear from Kirp is that North Carolina is on the wrong course as it seeks alternatives to public schools rather than improving public schools.

“We know how to fix public schools. The trick is to do it and not reach out for every fad or fancy that is out there,” Kirp said in a recent telephone interview.

Kirp is especially skeptical of vouchers – called “opportunity scholarships” in North Carolina – that give taxpayer money to children from low-income families to attend private schools.

“Look at voucher schools in Los Angeles and you’ll be appropriately horrified,” he said. “You’re giving poor kids a poor education under the guise of choice.”

After more than a year of ruinous ideas for fixing education, North Carolina needs to hear the kind of experience-based talk people like Kirp and others will deliver. With luck, they’ll truly be heard in Raleigh.

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