As dozens of young children played in downtown Asheville’s interactive water fountain, more than 50 adults criticized state legislation they say could jeopardize the future of educators, North Carolinians and the lives of the children playing in the nearby fountain.
“The folks running state government in Raleigh now, when they talk about public education, they talk about cuts, slash, burn and end — not about what we can do to make a difference. Make no mistake, our dedication to public education is on a downward spiral,” says Bob Etheridge, a former congressman, legislator and state superintendent of public instruction.
Etheridge has been sharing this message across North Carolina as part of a statewide tour for the grassroots group, Public Schools First NC. (The Asheville event was the fifth stop.)
“The problem is more than money. To be frank with you, it’s about the quality of the bad ideas coming out of Raleigh.” He specifically cites SB 374, a bill that would effectively end limitations on class-size, along with HB 935, which would change requirements for the NC Pre-K, a program for at-risk 4-year-olds.
However, Etheridge was not the only former legislator who spoke at today’s event. Former house representative Patsy Keever also sounded off about what she’s seeing in the North Carolina General Assembly. As a public school teacher for more than 25 years, the head of the Buncombe County Democratic Party says she’s “angered to see the way public school teachers and students are being treated.”
She continues, “This (legislative) majority views classrooms as factories, teachers as shop foremen and students as low-wage earners whose job is to produce a quantity of test scores. It aims to suck quality and passion out of the classroom. Our schools are not factories and our children are not machines.”
Others, like President of Buncombe County’s North Carolina Association of Educators Anna Austin, cited statistics along with their stories. “North Carolina has 19,799 national board-certified teachers; Buncombe County Schools is ranked 17th in the nation for nationally board-certified teachers,” she says. “Yet North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay.”
The event lasted a little more than 30 minutes, and featured two additional speakers: Betsey Russell, a parent and board member of the Asheville City Schools Foundation, and Chip Craig, owner of Greybeard Realty. After each speech, Etheridge would ring a bell, he says it’s a symbolic gesture to “sound the alarm and get people’s attention.”
“North Carolina has been one of those lighthouses in the South and across that country. Historically, our governors have said, ‘We’re going to invest in education, we’re looking for all those new bright ideas,’” Etheridge told Xpress after the event. “But it’s dimming fast. We’ve got to recharge it, refocus and reinvest because education is an investment.”
Caitlin Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 251-1333, ext.140.
Betsey Russell, a parent and board member of the Asheville City Schools Foundation, speaks out about the importance of public education.
Bob Etheridge addresses the approximately 50 people who attended the Public Schools First NC event on May 15.
Patsy Keever listens before addressing the crowd about her experience as a public schools educator and former state representative.
Photos by Max Cooper