North Carolina still believes in public education

If you want to ignite a spirited discussion at a holiday party, ask a half-dozen people what they think about public education in North Carolina today.

North Carolinians’ belief in the importance of public education has earned the state a longstanding national reputation as a good place to live, work and raise a family. On that notion, even the most polarized progressives and conservatives can agree. In fact, earlier this year, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation commissioned a statewide public opinion survey to gauge voter perceptions of N.C. public schools. An astonishing 85 percent of voters surveyed said North Carolina’s K-12 public education system is very or extremely important to the state.

Yet, 59 percent believe public education is on the wrong track in North Carolina.

Concerns include low teacher pay, not enough technology and lots of other issues. When asked why N.C. schools were on the wrong track, the most frequent answers were:

▪ 27 percent said schools aren’t teaching the basics and that curriculum needs to change.

▪ 23 percent said teachers are underpaid.

▪ 22 percent said there is too much emphasis on testing.

▪ 21 percent said overall funding is inadequate.

Survey respondents were also asked to name the critical areas for improvement in K-12 schools. Here’s how they responded:

▪ 62 percent said teachers should be paid more.

▪ 50 percent said overall funding of schools is inadequate.

▪ 44 percent said class size should be reduced.

▪ 40 percent said the quality of curriculum should be improved.

The conclusion from this statewide survey is clear: North Carolinians believe that public education is the great equalizer that prepares our students to succeed in life. Public schools’ capacity to educate each child well must be preserved.

Yet, between 2008 and 2015, state funding per pupil decreased by 14.5 percent, making North Carolina 47th among all the states. We’re also in the bottom tier of average teacher pay. Both the decline in the number of students enrolled in schools of education and the exodus of seasoned teachers, who are leaving N.C. classrooms for better paying teaching posts in other states, are worrisome.

In 2013, the General Assembly enacted tax cuts that reduced revenue by $1 billion. Legislators enacted another $1 billion cut in 2015. And when legislators return to Raleigh in May, they plan to take up a constitutional amendment – the so-called taxpayer bill of rights – that would severely restrict spending any increased revenues the state may collect. These tax cuts would have more than paid for increasing N.C. teacher pay to the national average.

In our survey, 80 percent of voters agreed that state policy and funding decisions are putting greater burdens on local schools and giving them fewer resources to educate students. Among categories of voters, 74 percent of conservatives agreed that the state is imposing added burdens on schools, along with 80 percent of moderates and 87 percent of progressives.

More than 75 percent of voters – conservatives, moderates and progressives – said that it is extremely important for schools to be adequately funded to provide a 21st century education. By the same percentage, they said paying for it is the responsibility of the state legislature and the governor.

In nearly any holiday gathering in North Carolina, it’s statistically likely that most revelers will agree on the importance of public education and be concerned about the need to provide better funding to prepare each student to become a productive grown-up. North Carolina still believes deeply in public education. It’s a conversation worth having now and continuing into the new year.

Leslie Winner is executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.