HELEN LADD: In NC, A GOP Assault With Intent To Destroy Public Education

Two years ago, we had the privilege of working with the State Board of Education to craft a “Vision of Public Education in North Carolina” affirming the importance of a strong public education system and laying out its basic features.

The statement begins with the premise that “great states have great public education systems” and points out that such systems generate both private and public benefits: providing each child with the knowledge and skills for success in life while promoting workforce development and an informed citizenry.

The statement notes that the N.C. Constitution calls for “a general and uniform system of free public schools” that allows diverse approaches to teaching and learning – including charter schools and virtual schools – so long as they embrace “the central values of the public school system.” In practice, this means they must be accessible to all students and adhere to the same high academic and fiscal standards as regular public schools receiving taxpayer funds.

During the 2013 legislative session, the Republican-led General Assembly, with the assent of Gov. Pat McCrory, enacted a sweeping set of new laws that represent a frontal assault on public education in North Carolina and the values affirmed by the state board in 2012. Most importantly, lawmakers undermined two of the bedrocks of a strong public education system: adequate funding and a powerful teaching force.

Education funding in our state was hit hard by the recession of 2008, when Democrats were in control. Rather than reverse this course, however, Republican leaders exacerbated the problem by enacting tax cuts – primarily for corporations and wealthy individuals – that soaked up revenues that could have been invested in public schools. Although McCrory and Senate leader Phil Berger have used some budgetary sleight of hand to argue otherwise, the budget for public schools fell this year by 1.49 percent, meaning fewer teachers, teaching assistants and instructional materials – all at a time when enrollments are rising.

The General Assembly’s education agenda has played havoc with the widely held belief that putting a good teacher in front of each student is the key to educational success. Although North Carolina teachers have received only one pay raise – 1.2 percent in 2012 – in the past five years, the General Assembly froze teacher salaries and eliminated the major way teachers can enhance their incomes: pay raises for advanced degrees. Teachers in our state routinely take second jobs. Some even qualify for Medicaid and food assistance.

The General Assembly added insult to injury by making working conditions more difficult – increased class sizes, fewer aides, fewer textbooks – and denigrating the professional status of teachers by eliminating career status and funds for professional development. Perhaps most humiliating, teachers must now compete against one another for yearly $500 pay raises, undermining the collaborative climate that marks successful schools.

The Republican education agenda also violates the constitutional mandate for a “uniform system of free public schools.” It embraces untrammeled expansion of charters with no concern for their effect on existing schools or minimum standards of accountability. Moreover, their actions will put millions of public dollars into the pockets of entrepreneurs whose ultimate responsibility is to a bottom line, not to quality education. The new voucher program – marketed as “Opportunity Scholarships” – diverts much-needed money from traditional public schools to largely unaccountable private schools, a majority of which are religious.

Republicans demonstrate little concern for the fundamental obligation of public schools to serve the full range of students. While charter schools are theoretically obligated to accept all comers, they need not provide transportation or subsidized meals. The inevitable result is a disproportionate number of difficult-to-teach students in regular public schools. Private schools receiving vouchers can accept or reject whomever they want.

The only time Republican lawmakers seem to express concern for disadvantaged students is in the context of arguing for parental choice – helping a few students who are “trapped” in low-performing schools. Where is the concern for the majority of students who remain in those schools? And where are the Republican voices seeking to alleviate the well-documented adverse effect of poverty on student achievement through services such as universal early childhood education or health clinics in schools?

Although many public schools in North Carolina face major challenges, most are doing well and getting better. The four-year high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 82.5 percent, up 14 percentage points since 2006. The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that North Carolina eighth-graders perform well above the national average in science and math and better than their peers in most developed countries.

If one were to devise a strategy for destroying public education in North Carolina, it might look like this: Repeat over and over again that schools are failing and that the system needs to be replaced. Then make this a self-fulfilling prophecy by starving schools of funds, undermining teachers and badmouthing their profession, balkanizing the system to make coherent planning impossible, putting public funds in the hands of unaccountable private interests and abandoning any pretense that the goal is to prepare every child in our state to succeed in life.

We do not know what motives have driven McCrory and other Republican leaders to enact their education agenda. We do know that their actions look a lot like a systematic effort to destroy a public education system that took more than a century to build and that, once destroyed, could take decades to restore.

Edward B. Fiske is a former education editor of the New York Times and author of the “Fiske Guide to Colleges.” 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 News & Observer.