Let us be bold. Let us be brave. Let us be together.
These words, spoken by Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, can equally apply to the monumental steps the N.C. General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory took this year in the passage of a budget that sustains, strengthens and transforms our public education system.
While there has been much debate about specific provisions of the new education policies, their substance and impact are undeniable. For example:
Opportunity Scholarship expansion: The Opportunity Scholarship Program was slightly increased to aid thousands of low-income families who were on the waiting list. To date, approximately 2,000 students are officially enrolled and more than 300 private schools are waiting to participate in the program’s inaugural year. With 258 scholarship recipients in Wake County, it is obvious that families desire this program and are no longer satisfied with the status quo. We hope the state’s highest court acts with all deliberate speed so that more high-quality options are available to our most disadvantaged.
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Public school teacher pay: Our elected officials allocated nearly $300 million this year to increase teacher pay. This investment represents one of the largest in state history and moves us closer to the national average. The Wake County Public School System is the largest in North Carolina, with thousands of hard-working teachers. Every teacher received a pay increase; however, deference was given to teachers at the beginning of their careers while teachers with longevity received less. Critics have said this is unfair, but it makes a lot of sense. The long-term focus must be about establishing a stronger system in terms of entry and progressive pay. It allows us to keep teachers who are currently doing a great job and have the capacity to continue to do so for decades to come.
Modifications to public charter schools: Since the elimination of the cap on public charter schools, we now have 149 operating in the state, serving nearly 60,000 students. The primary role public charter schools play in our state should not be simply about growth, but quality growth. That’s why our elected officials have modified our current laws to steer us toward accountability and quality – attributes we can all agree are important.
Senate Bill 783 authorized the State Board of Education to develop a new bid process for the assumption or “take over” of a public charter that is not meeting the needs of its students. This process provides an opportunity for qualified leaders to boost the overall quality of public education while halting the massive disruption of families attempting to find a new school for their children. The new law also requires the board to adopt an expedited framework to approve school proposals from existing high-quality public charters seeking to replicate. This will allow growth of our stronger public charter schools as well as meet the increased demand of the tens of thousands of families desiring this option.
These are just a few of the innovative, bold and brave measures our elected officials have implemented this year. Taken together, they are innovative because they require us to embrace a richer continuum of educational experiences for our children. They are bold because they require us to think differently about how to compensate all teachers and also reward our higher-performing teachers. They are brave because they require us to put aside preconceived notions of what public education is so that, together, we can embrace the audacious promise of what public education can be.
Darrell Allison is the president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.