These are not good days for North Carolina’s public schools. The problems with low funding for school operations and the paltry pay for teachers are well known. But what is more troubling is the poverty of faith in the purpose and potential of public schools.
Some state lawmakers think public schools are hopelessly bureaucratic, burdened with poor-performing and unaccountable teachers and ineffective in teaching the basics of reading and math. Their solution is to create options. They’ve lifted the limits on charter schools and pushed through a voucher program for students from low-income families they describe as “trapped” in lousy public schools.
Given that grim view, it was uplifting to hear about the success of an investment in public schools that the Republican-controlled legislature has supported. Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced in Greensboro that NC New Schools – a public-private effort to improve public schools – has been awarded a $20 million grant to expand its work in North Carolina as well as in several other states.
NC New Schools was founded in 2003 with seed funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a state match. It is now supported by state funding, federal grants and donations from foundations and corporations. NC New Schools seeks is to reinvent and reinvigorate public schools instead of giving up on them and creating alternatives.
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Indeed, NC New Schools aspires to renew old schools. To that end, the organization sends teams of master teachers into schools in rural and low-income urban areas to assist administrators and develop the teaching staff. It also runs an early college program that connects with colleges and community colleges so high school students can take college courses tuition-free. The result has been a decrease in dropouts, an increase in graduates and more students going to college. NC New Schools is now working with about 140 schools in North Carolina and serves 2,700 educators and nearly 40,000 students.
In announcing the grant, Duncan made the important point that it was not awarded so much as it was earned by the results of the early-college program. He said, “This is not a gift. It is an investment, an investment in your leadership, your strategy, your plans and, very important for us, your evidence.”
NC New Schools’ results are important on several levels. The early-college program can lower the cost of college and it encourages more to go to college. The group’s work with rural schools addresses part of the state’s overall problem with dying rural economies and withering towns. Finally, it strengthens some of the weakest links in the state’s education system and bolsters the state’s workforce.
In a broader sense, groups like NC New Schools and the Department of Education under Duncan show the power of regarding public schools as engines of change. Duncan said NC New Schools’ work was “about changing lives, in some places it’s about saving lives.” And education – innovative, vigorous, well-funded education – can do that everywhere.
“What we are trying to do across the nation, in inner-city urban areas, on Native American reservations, in rural communities in North Carolina and other places is give a sense of what’s possible,” Duncan said. “When we as adults raise expectations to provide these opportunities, the students always more than meet us halfway.”
That is a good message for lawmakers to expand on in their next session: Don’t give up on public schools – lift up expectations for public school students. The results can be impressive and the return much larger and longer lasting than the investment.