Jim Jenkins

The most important school choice – support public schools

A student makes his way toward the front main entrance to Sanderson High School, Raleigh, NC Thursday, September 1, 2016.
A student makes his way toward the front main entrance to Sanderson High School, Raleigh, NC Thursday, September 1, 2016. hlynch@newsobserver.com

My Old Buddy from Greensboro and his wife are products of North Carolina’s public schools, as are their children and, now, some of their grandchildren. As am I. As are most of the people I know. The core of North Carolina’s public education system – which transformed this state over the last 100 years and gave bragging rights to us all about this being a progressive, enlightened place – is the mainstream public school. And it is to those schools that most families still send their kids.

So Old Buddy was drawn to a meeting of the Greensboro chapter of the NAACP because of an appearance by Gov. Roy Cooper, whose fight for those conventional, solid public schools seems at times curiously lonely.

Cooper, who takes the cause to the cities and hamlets most every week, hit the themes in Greensboro he’s talked about everywhere: about the value of early childhood education – championed previously by Govs. Jim Hunt and Mike Easley – about his own public education and about his mother, who was a teacher. She had an impact on kids, the governor says, and he knows because so many of them have told him so.

It is a good story and a true story and one with which hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians over several generations – whether they were in the classroom of Beverly Cooper or that of someone else – can identify and tell as their own. (I could line up hundreds and hundreds of Broughton High School alums who would gladly testify to the difference the late Lou Rosser, a legendary English teacher, made to them.)

But here’s the maddening thing about the governor’s crusade for public education: The only debate about public schools should be about how best to enlarge the bandwagon to accommodate all the people who want to get aboard.

Instead, Republicans are stirring discontent by seeming to advocate more strongly for charters (public schools without conventional rules) and public-money vouchers to enable people to pull their kids out of public schools and finance private educations on the public dime, than they are for the mainstream schools. Sometimes, GOP officials even argue among themselves, as seems to be the case with the State Board of Education and the elected state superintendent. That superintendent, Mark Johnson, is a dutiful advocate for charters and vouchers, which keeps him in favor with GOP leaders at the General Assembly but not with his own oversight board, which has a broader view.

Virtually everyone who’s occupied the top office in North Carolina over the last 100 years has wanted a legacy as an “education governor.” Most editions of the General Assembly have featured programs to bolster public education. Every politician from the courthouse on up has posed for campaign ads with public school teachers and talked about those classroom leaders who helped them when they were in short pants.

Why? Because of all the issues in a given political campaign or debate, public education is the one for which support ought to be unanimous. Gov. Cooper should be accompanied on his crusade by every General Assembly Republicanbacking him up and raising the stakes.

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore ought to be following Cooper’s remarks on the stump by saying, “Well, we also support education, but we think the governor is a little too conservative. We favor a bigger budget and higher raises for teachers.” Instead, GOP leaders at times appear to be trying to spotlight the problems in public schools instead of focusing on the triumphs, of which there are many thousands every single day.

That’s right. From the kid who breaks through on math after a long struggle, and knocks the top out of the End of Grade test to the one who never cared for reading until he was given a teacher’s personal copy of a favorite book and thereafter devoured every page in the Harry Potter library.

These are good stories, these true tales from public schools. No wonder the governor carries the message. For he heard the stories from one teacher who helped to write them.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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