The perils of a ‘private’ vision for NC schools

North Carolina needs a strong public education system. Without one we will be wasting our most precious resource: our people.

Poorly educated residents are less healthy, less innovative and creative, less productive, more likely to be incarcerated and more likely to become financial burdens on their fellow citizens. An educated population attracts companies offering high-paying and stable jobs and provides the foundation for a strong democracy, a vibrant political culture and a flourishing middle class. As North Carolinians, we all have a compelling collective stake in promoting a strong education system.

Past North Carolina policymakers have clearly understood the importance of education. In the 1850s, we became the first state to have a statewide superintendent of schools. In 1931, when the Great Depression seriously threatened the prevailing system of local government funding for education, the General Assembly took the courageous step of assuming responsibility for funding a free and uniform education system for all children in North Carolina.

More recently, in the early 1960s, state policymakers showed similar courage in expanding the state sales tax to fund education. But quality public education in North Carolina is now very much under attack.

Policymakers in Raleigh proclaim that the system is “broken” when in fact it has served the state well over a long period of time. Graduation rates, though still too low, are rising, and our students perform at or above national averages on national tests. The system will become broken, however, if policymakers continue to starve it of adequate resources.

Per-pupil spending on K-12 education in North Carolina is now 46th in the country, teacher salaries are 48th and the General Assembly has been cutting funding for our university and community college systems, once the envy of other states.

The current threats to education extend far beyond resources. The Senate has proposed legislation (SB337) that would divide the current K-12 system into two competing systems. While the State Board of Education would continue to set policy for the state’s traditional public schools, authority for the state’s charter schools, which are publicly funded and growing rapidly in numbers, would be shifted to a completely separate charter school board.

This dual system raises serious concerns about whether the state is meeting its constitutional responsibility to provide a “general and uniform system of public education.” The current attack on public education in North Carolina is part of a broader effort of conservative groups around the country to promote private interests with little attention to the collective interests that justify the use of taxpayer dollars to support schooling in the first place.

Proponents of this private vision push for reduced spending on traditional public schools, unfettered expansion of charter schools, transfer of school management to private firms that view education as a business opportunity, school vouchers that shift public funds to private schools and scholarships for private school tuitions financed by tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals.

This private vision espoused by Republican leaders diverts attention from the public purposes of schooling and reduces accountability for the use of public funds. Perhaps most important, this anti-public education vision leaves little room for principles of social justice and the commitment to equal educational opportunity for all students.

When education becomes primarily a private affair, benefits flow disproportionately to those with the most means to work the system to their advantage. The losers are typically disadvantaged children who end up in under-resourced traditional public schools with large concentrations of low-performing and challenging-to-educate students. The role of education as an engine of opportunity for every North Carolina child is downplayed in favor of greater benefits for those already advantaged.

This private vision of education is not the right vision for North Carolina. We do not need a dual school system. Rather, we need a coherent and flexible system that appropriately balances private and public interests. We need a coherent and adequately funded system in which all schools, including charters, work together to assure that all children are well served.

Strong public education systems take years to build, but they can be quickly destroyed. If we under invest in education today, North Carolina will eventually face the daunting and perhaps impossible task of reinventing a system that has served the state well in the past.

Helen F. Ladd is Edgar Thompson Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.This commentary was originally published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.