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