Back to school: Advocates see threats to public education in current legislation

They had to keep rolling out chairs April 23 for what was billed as a “Conversation about Public Education in North Carolina,” held at the Asheville City Schools board room on Mountain Street. A larger-than-anticipated audience of 60 people — educators, elected officials, parents, advocates — came to talk about the status of public education, and to offer some opinions.

In a nutshell, the program message by presenter Page McCullough was that the status of public education in the state, which has been quantifiably climbing for years, is about to take a drastic plunge.

McCullough is director of outreach with Public Schools First NC, a grassroots advocacy group promoting high-quality public education in the state. She began the evening with an overview that included some state firsts — North Carolina had the first publicly funded university in the country in 1789, for example. Then she highlighted the state’s constitutional obligation to provide for public education and outlined improvements that have been steadily climbing for the past decade.

“That progress is threatened by anemic funding and privatization initiatives,” McCullough said. Since 2009, according to her statistics, public schools have lost 13,978 full-time personnel while gaining 16,000 students. There are many initiatives that were helping with improvements but have been eliminated or cut by recent or proposed changes in education programming and funding — including dropout prevention, teacher mentors, teaching fellows, electives and smaller classes.

“North Carolina is no longer competitive with neighboring states,” said McCullough, and a new threat of “privatization” is on her radar. She then talked about current legislation being considered, focusing mainly on House Bill 443 and its companion, Senate Bill 337. “These loosen oversight of schools,” McCullough said, reeling off a list of what she sees as backward steps, including the creation of a separate N.C. Public Charter School Board predominantly autonomous from the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction; proposals to allow counties to fund charter schools; removal of teacher-certification requirements; and requirements that vacant public buildings, including schools, be made available for charter schools for $1 per year.

HB 443 passed its first reading in the House and is currently in the Committee on Education. SB 337 was amended in the Education/Higher Education Committee and the adopted substitute bill is now in Appropriations/Base Budget. Another bill on McCullough’s list was SB 374, which would end limits on class size; it is also in the Appropriations/Base Budget Committee.

After McCullough’s presentation, the discussion centered largely around the new charter-school legislation, particularly the $1 rent provision for public buildings, and the proposed voucher system (HB 944, the “Opportunity Scholarship Act”) that would move children out of the public school system. But audience members talked at length about how to raise awareness of the issues with parents and the public, and how to advocate with legislators.

“See them at home,” not in their Raleigh environment, McCullough advised. “Establish a relationship. Not everyone is on exactly the same page about everything, believe me,” she cautioned. “Talk with them in grocery stores. Invite them to your school.”

David King, one of two Republicans recently elected to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, championed McCullough’s statement. “I’d like to reiterate … do not hesitate to reach out. Don’t assume all Republicans support those bills. Don’t assume [they] don’t like public schools. My wife is a retired teacher.”

Patsy Keever, Buncombe County Democratic Party chair, a longtime teacher and a former county commissioner as well as state representative, added her own word of caution about the Raleigh scene. “Do not be fooled by what’s going on in the Legislature,” she said of the plethora of proposals aimed at the public education system — it could be a tactic to soften the blow “when they only pass five out of 20.”

“We believe in public education,” said Allison Jordan, executive director of Children First, one of two local nonprofits that co-sponsored the event. “That’s the message to take to [the legislators].”

Following the event, Kate Pett, executive director of the co-sponsoring Asheville City Schools Foundation — an independent nonprofit that advocates for public education — told Xpress  that she felt very encouraged by the evening’s turnout. “I think it demonstrates that a really broad spectrum of people are concerned with the legislation being proposed,” she said. The response also indicates that “the Legislature is really out of step,” because the bills they have introduced evidence “distrust and undervaluing” of the state’s public education system, Pett added.

“The people in that room know we have good schools [and] think the state should support the system.”

— Nelda Holder can be reached at nfholder@gmail.com. Follow our Statehouse news at mountainx.com/ncmatters.

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