North Carolina assigned a letter grade to every public school because Republican lawmakers said it would show clearly and simply what is happening in our schools.
But the real story is what is happening to the schools. To find out, there’s no better witness than Heidi Carter, an 11-year veteran of the Durham school board who has served for the past three years as its chairwoman.
Carter, 53, is a North Carolina native who attended public schools in Winston-Salem, went on to graduate from Duke and decided to stay in Durham. She and her husband sent their four children through Durham’s public schools. One is a doctor, another a lawyer. All have done well. Durham public schools worked for the Carters, a white, middle-class family. Now, that’s less and less the case.
Durham schools’ student population is now 17 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic and the rest mostly African-American. Sixty-seven percent of the 33,900 students who attend Durham’s district schools qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. In some schools, the percentage is more than 80.
When I last spoke to Carter a year ago, she was worried about the Republican-led General Assembly’s push to increase the number of charter schools. Durham County provides a relatively generous local supplement to boost per-student spending above what the state provides. Those dollars have attracted an influx of charters, taxpayer-funded schools that operate independently of the local school system.
A year later, Carter is coping with the fallout from assigning schools a letter grade, another misbegotten idea from lawmakers who don’t care much for “government schools.” This idea – which was hatched by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida in the 1990s and has since spread to 17 states – doesn’t improve schools. But it can make things harder for schools struggling to educate students who come mostly from low-income families.
Durham took a beating from the letter grades. Out of 53 district schools graded, 29 received either a D of F grade. Durham’s 10 charters schools showed a similar pattern in which those serving mostly students from low-income families received Ds and Fs. .
Of the school letter grades, released for the first time earlier this month, Carter said, “I think it has shone a bright light on the incredibly powerful link between poverty and achievement in schools.”
In Durham, school leaders can’t change the demographics. So Carter says schools must change the dynamic. “Our fundamental challenge is to break the link,” she says.
In that, Durham isn’t getting any help from Raleigh. And it’s even worse for schools in poor rural counties that lack the tax base to provide supplements. State funding for Durham schools has tightened while enrollment has grown by about 1,000 students.
“I don’t think North Carolina policies are doing a thing to help and, if anything, those policies are exacerbating the challenge of breaking the link,” Carter says.
As Durham’s district schools have lost resources to charter schools, Carter says, “There has been a corresponding increase in the number of high-poverty schools and more segregation by race and class.”
Republican lawmakers are pushing virtual charters, which will mean Durham will have to pay for at least some of its home-schooled children. And a new voucher program is sending tax money to private and religious schools. Now comes letter grades, which stigmatize schools and make it even harder to attract children from middle-class families.
“It all adds up to a recipe for disaster for school systems that are serving a majority of poor (children),” Carter says.
There’s no mystery about how to break the link between poverty and low achievement, she says. It means starting earlier, before kindergarten, before children have a chance to fall behind. “The single most effective thing we could do is expand high-quality pre-K,” she says. Steps two and three would be enriching after-school activities and adding programs to keep students’ skills from regressing during the summer months.
For Carter, the neglect and increasing isolation of schools that serve children from poor families threaten the institutions that once connected Americans. “All differences came together in a public school setting, and that’s not happening so much anymore. We should be worried about that,” she says.
That splitting apart is also happening nationally. It’s estimated that more than half of public schools have student bodies that are mostly from low-income families. “We’re fighting to not let our public schools become the schools of last resort. And they shouldn’t be. Anyone who goes into one of our public schools would see the enriching opportunities,” she says.
In Durham, it’s frustrating that the schools are growing poorer even as the city enjoys a boom in restaurants, the arts and downtown real estate. In that paradox, the responsibility can’t be put on conservative lawmakers. It reflects the decision of middle-class residents to send their children to charter or private schools.
“If everyone in Durham sent their children to our schools so our schools were a current reflection of our demographics, the test scores would be very different,” Carter says. “The best way to support public schools is to send your children to them and then do everything you can to make them as strong as they can be.”