Politics & Government

NC lawmakers should stop trying to ‘discredit’ and ‘devalue’ public schools, group says

Renewing support for North Carolina’s public schools

Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, says the group is concerned that the state's focus on competition and school choice is hurting traditional public schools.
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Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, says the group is concerned that the state's focus on competition and school choice is hurting traditional public schools.

North Carolina lawmakers have lost sight of the value of traditional public schools and instead pursued policies promoting school choice and competition that have helped to undermine public education, an education group charged Wednesday.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocate for better schools and more public funding for education, said that the state has created “a political environment that often does not value or adequately support traditional public education.” The group listed “renew North Carolina’s commitment to public schools for the public good” as the top education issue for 2019 on a list released Wednesday.

“It should be a no-brainer, right, that public schools would have our unwavering support and especially that of our policy makers,” Lauren Fox, senior director of policy at the Public School Forum, said at Wednesday’s breakfast meeting at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. “But that’s really not what’s happened.

“Recent policy decisions have served to discredit, defund and devalue our state’s public education system. At the same time, we’ve seen an emphasis on values like competition, choice and proficiency while public schools are often blamed for so-called failures.”

Republican legislative leaders were quick to defend their policy decisions, especially those that have sharply expanded the number of charter schools and provided taxpayer money for families to attend private schools.

“The General Assembly has increased investments in public schools by billions of dollars over the last eight years, including five consecutive teacher pay raises,” Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said in a statement.

“Together with that investment, we’ve given parents the power to change the trajectory of a child’s life by deciding on a school that fits that child’s unique gifts. It’s disheartening but unsurprising that this organization wants to deprive parents of that life-changing decision to suit their political agenda.”

Joseph Kyzer, a spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, pointed to a recent survey sponsored by the Civitas Institute, a group that supports charter schools and private school vouchers.

“A SurveyUSA research study conducted just last week found 92 percent of North Carolinians agree parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school, 88% believe a parent or legal guardian is best suited to decide where a child should attend school, and 84% support the Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Kyzer said in a statement.

“These are powerful reflections of public opinion for not just parents, but all people in our state, in support of providing education options for young minds in our school systems.”

Republican lawmakers have made major changes to education policies since they took control of the General Assembly after the 2010 election.

But the Public School Forum painted a negative light on many of those changes, saying they’ve “discredited and devalued our public schools.” At a time when the group says traditional public schools are underfunded and are being “stigmatized” by the state’s “faulty’ A-F school grading system, private schools and for-profit charter schools “siphon our tax dollars away.”

Enrollment has dropped in traditional public schools while it’s gone up in private schools, charter schools and homeschools. Now nearly 1 in 5 North Carolina students are getting their education in something other than a traditional public school.

The forum wants state lawmakers to take steps such as increase accountability on private schools that receive voucher money and require an analysis of the impact proposed charter schools would have on racial segregation in traditional public schools.

Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum, said “the erosion of North Carolina’s commitment to public schools for the public good is clear” and that “the emphasis on choice and competition has led us astray from the intended purpose of public schools.”

“It is time to reverse course and commit to implementing policies and increasing funding levels that will ensure that all of our children have equitable access to a rigorous education that will prepare them to be the thoughtful, empathetic, and creative leaders that we need for our future,” Poston said in a press release.

Supporters of traditional public schools are hopeful that now that Democrats have broken the GOP’s veto-proof majority in the legislature that there will be education changes made this year.

But the forum’s call for action also occurs at the same time that groups around the country celebrate National School Choice Week. Mike Long, president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said that a climate has been created in North Carolina that empowers parents with choice.

Hundreds of proponents of school choice, including NC Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, cite the benefits of non-traditional education options during a rally in Raleigh, NC Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

“Simply put, school choice and educational reform is the civil rights issue of our time and has the ability to reach across the aisle,” Long said in a statement Wednesday. “Couple that with innovative steps forward to support families with students with specials needs, we truly believe that North Carolina is a national leader on educational reform.

“Those who would advocate for reverting back to an antiquated status quo that doesn’t work for all families are prioritizing systems over children.”

Public School Forum of North Carolina’s Top 10 Education Issues for 2019

1. Renew North Carolina’s Commitment to Public Schools for the Public Good

2. Target Rural North Carolina’s Unique Education Challenges

3. Directly Address Persistent Racial Inequities in North Carolina’s Schools

4. Seize Historic Opportunity to Advance Adequacy and Equity in School Funding

5. Recognize that Teacher Recruitment and Retention Starts with Professional Treatment

6. Strengthen Charter School and Private School Voucher Transparency and Accountability

7. Eliminate Stress and Stigma in Testing and Accountability Policy

8) Start at the Top by Investing in School Leaders

9. Thoughtfully and Strategically Invest In School Safety

10. Focus on Whole Child, Whole Day

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.