Despite a dip, Wake schools still must prepare for rapid growth

Leesville Road Elementary School students board a school bus Tuesday morning, Jan. 2, 2018 along Raleigh Boulevard in Raleigh.
Leesville Road Elementary School students board a school bus Tuesday morning, Jan. 2, 2018 along Raleigh Boulevard in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

The fact that the Wake County school system is seeing its smallest growth in more than 30 years this year – with 880 more students – will doubtless be used by some who are skeptical of public education and prefer charter schools or the private school vouchers gifted to some people by Republicans in the legislature as a reason to cut funding. One way they may want to do that is to trim a proposed $1.1 billion school construction bond in November.

That would be an extraordinarily bad idea. The money would go for 11 new schools and to complete renovations on some older buildings.

A one-year aberration does not a trend make. And Wake County’s growth isn’t stopping. School officials and county planners believe the school district will add 1,900 students next year and average more than 2,000 students a year added over the next decade. That’s no slowdown.

Neither school board members nor commissioners should be discouraged by one year’s slowdown. Yes, charter school enrollment is up – but the Republicans in the General Assembly opened the floodgates for more charters, so that increase was to be expected.

Still the choice

But mainstream, conventional public schools remain the choice for the vast majority of families in this country.

And that likely will remain the case.

So this is no time to cut the size of the bond, or to become skeptical about the future of the schools. If anything, building more schools is more crucial than ever, with both growth and the enthusiastic push for new high-tech business. Recruiters for the county will readily acknowledge that good public schools are no small factor when it comes to drawing those businesses.

Commissioner Erv Portman, long a strong advocate for the school system, has it right when he says, “I think this community clearly understands that education is one of the few things we do as taxpayers that has a positive return to us.”

Schools the ‘passport’

That’s it exactly. To be sure, schools are vital to enrich the lives of young people, whether that means a great teacher lighting up a potential scientist’s imagination in the lab, or a music teacher recognizing that a child has special talent on the violin or with his or her voice. Public education in North Carolina has long been a passport for success for hundreds of thousands and, through the years, millions of children.

In fact, this state’s public education system helped to transform North Carolina in the course of the 20th century and helped prepare it for the day when agriculture, while remaining important, was no longer the only choice of occupation for so many of the state’s young people. (It does remain a choice for many, thank goodness.)

So this is no time for any county, particularly one in the middle of a growth boom and an increasing role as a technology hub, to pull back on public education funding in any way. The increase required for property taxes to pay for the bond would be minimal, 3 or 3.5 cents, amounting to less than $100 a year on a $300,000 home.

The bond is needed – for the long term – and must not be diminished by shortsightedness in the short term.