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. (Photos by Max Cooper)

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 with Public Schools First NC, a grassroots advocacy group promoting high-quality public education in the state. She began the evening with an overview including some state firsts — starting with the first publicly funded university in the country in 1789. 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. And there is a list of disappearing initiatives that were helping with improvements, 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 a separate N.C. Public Charter Schools Board predominantly autonomous from the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction; proposals to allow counties to fund charter schools; removal of teacher-certification requirements; requirements that vacant public buildings, including schools, be made available for charter schools for $1 per year.

The following discussion period centered largely around the new charter-school legislation, particularly the $1 rent provision for public buildings, and the proposed voucher system (HB 944) 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,” McCullough advised regarding legislators — not in their Raleigh environment. “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 recently elected Republican members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, followed up on 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, local Democratic party chair and 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 number 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 co-sponsoring the event. “That’s the message to take to [the legislators].”

Kate Pett, executive director of the co-sponsoring Asheville City Schools Foundation, had the final word. “Stay with us,” she said. “There’s nothing like activity to make you feel empowered.”

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor

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4 thoughts on “Advocates see threats to public education in current legislation

  1. Dionysis

    The Republican recipe for education ‘reform’:

    * Privatize
    * Eliminate quality of teachers (‘we don’t need no stinkin’ certifications’)
    * Raise the cost significantly (see first bullet point)
    * Produce the desired dumbed-down result

  2. Lamont Cranston

    Why does NC want to win the race to the bottom of the barrel? If you think quality public education is expensive and can be replaced with an inferior model, then be content with ignorance.

    • Dionysis

      It has little if anything to do with what is best for the state of North Carolina. It is really a political calculus on the part of today’s breed of GOP politicians. The biggest threat to the GOP is an educated voter.

  3. Spydyee

    Charter schools already have a lower rate of certified teachers and generally a higher success rate than traditional public schools. Why?

    The reason is the relaxed rules regarding the “Teacher Certification” and the idea that one can be an expert in a specific field and provide a quality education to students in your area of expertise. For example, I would prefer my child study jazz dance under Frank Hatchett (co-founder of Broadway Dance Center, NY) than under a person that studied under him that was also a dance education major in college.

    The idea of a charter school is to bring in people with an expertise in certain areas and have them work in conjunction with educational curriculum specialists to develop the educational materials they will use but they will be teaching the classes. They, the experts, will be there to answer the kid’s questions and to demonstrate the techniques they use in their area of expertise.
    Core classes in Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies should be taught by certified teachers. Right now the requirements simply put some magic number of the percentage of certified teachers that are required and require core classes to be taught by a college graduate.

    So if a charter school has a local person with a specific skillset that lacks a teaching certificate and they lack the proper number of “certified teachers” they would have to hire a person that is potentially less qualified to teach that subject in order to have a “certified teacher” in the classroom.

    I think charter schools should be able to hire people with some type of peer-reviewed industry certification, a peer-reviewed published work, or an industry wide recognition of some form as an alternative to a “certified teacher” in non-core classes. Basic grammar, math, science, and social studies should be with certified teachers that make sure children have the foundational understanding of the subject matter.

    Advanced classes in literature and creative writing, trigonometry, calculus, bio-physics, astronomy, engineering, art music, dance, computer related classes, and a host of other things can be taught by industry experts that are not “certified teachers” but are actually doing or have done (i.e. retired or so rich they don’t have to go to the office every day) actual jobs using the skills.

    Think about it this way, even though Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both dropped out of college I think both of them would be better qualified to teach a class on computers than the average computer science teacher at any of our local schools. Of course Jobs is dead and Bill is not coming down here to teach kids computers but there are people in our community like my father that have worked in the computer industry since the 1960s and have forgotten more about computers than most of us will ever know.

    IBM hired my dad with a GED and some LORAN training in the Coast Guard. There are many retired professionals out there that lack teaching certificates and some that lack college degrees that are keeping up with their industry and all the changes going on in it. They are intelligent people with a strong understanding of the history of their industry and can give the kids a sense of just how much change has occurred in a single person’s lifetime. Perspective is often lost when historical context is removed from education.

    Changing the rules to allow Charter Schools to have more freedom to employ these unlicensed “Experts” would improve the opportunities for the children that attend these schools. These new an innovative ways to present education to children need to be supported.

    I am not a republican. I am an Independent. I have kids in the public schools in Buncombe County. I tend to lean left due to my belief in equal opportunity for all people requires leveling the playing field and removing economic hinderances from the equation regarding education, food and shelter for children. However, cookie cutter, cracker-box schools that have little to no flexibility is not leveling the playing field. It is actually the exact opposite.

    I have children with special needs. They are Autistic people just like me. Requiring them to attend a school with fluorescent lights, loud buzzers and bells, and noisy lunchrooms actually hinders my children’s ability to learn. I actually want to see them change the law to permit the forming of charter schools for specific disabilities such as Autism. The current law prohibits this from occurring. Since charter schools are optional and not a situation where a child can be forced to attend them nothing would change except for those of us that want to segregate our kids into a more sensory friendly environment would have the option of doing so.

    As long as the evaluation mandate, via testing or portfolio, remains in effect at every grade level for progression to the next grade and periodic testing comparable to the other public schools is done then I think the charter schools should be able to choose who teaches the classes and what teachers need to be certified and which ones can be “experts” with or without teaching credentials.

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