Jessica Wakeman’s excellent summary of the Aug. 17 Republican confab on public education in Hendersonville underscores how politicians can weaponize the most critical aspects of a child’s learning [“Education Battleground: Edwards, Republican Panel Talk ‘Leftist Agenda’ in Schools,” Aug. 24, Xpress].
Instead of emphasizing the importance of public education that embraces both facts and open discussion, critical thinking and creative problem solving, the political candidates on hand appeared to be lacing outright lies regarding parental access to school boards with attacks on anyone trying to salvage a public education system brutally defunded for years by the GOP.
The pathway to that defunding — what many teachers call a Republican “war” on public education — has been marked by billions withheld from school districts, especially in poor and rural areas. Our legislature diverts tax money to charter and religious schools, many run by for-profit corporations.
Further, the GOP’s strategy is to eliminate public K-12 education entirely, delaying remedial payments to promote school equity by dragging out funding cases in court. Another tactic: demoralizing teachers with firings, muzzling of advocacy groups and dismal pay. Today, for example, the National Education Association ranks North Carolina 34 in average teacher pay and 41 in per-pupil spending, coming in $3,308 lower per child than the national average. North Carolina public schools received a C-minus rating in the Education Week 2019 Quality Reports.
Concurrently, the state Supreme Court is debating the decades-old Leandro case filed in 1994 by needy public schools seeking equitable funding. Today the court is addressing whether the Republican-dominated legislature has the authority to withhold $785 million from public schools. “The legislature has added $500 million in budget reserve, but they’re choking public education by underfunding it until it dies,” said Jay Carey, an Army veteran running as a Democrat for state Senate District 48 against Rep. Tim Moffitt this fall.
The Republican confab in Hendersonville ignored the funding issue. State Sen. Chuck Edwards (District 48), best known for taking $1.1 million from the federal Payback Protection Program for his McDonald’s franchises, then introducing a bill to give himself and other lucky business owners a tax break, argues that parents need “school choice.” Edwards today is running for Congress in the 11th District. He wants to abolish the state Board of Education for being “unaccountable” and “bully[ing]” (his words) when, in fact, the General Assembly has bullied its way into sacrificing a public education system that once was the Southeast’s pride.
Amy Lynn Holt, Henderson County Board of Public Education vice chair, decried the “leftist agenda” of a local teacher who asked her students to read a New York Times article describing Donald Trump. Holt didn’t specify whether the students were asked to do fact checking or identify the writer’s sources. Edwards came up with the best either/or “false dilemma” nugget of the day. “We’ve got to stop talking about pronouns and start talking about protons,” he said. As though teachers can’t manage both.
Educational needs are complex. With 22% of high schoolers today identifying as not heterosexual, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s reasonable to show respect by allowing some discussion of gender identity — if not in class, then in clubs or counseling. Complaining that Democrats don’t care about parental involvement in school boards is another convenient lie. Parents of every political stripe are on school boards in almost every district in the country.
And if Sen. Edwards wants kids to talk more about protons than pronouns, how about funding up-to-date science labs in our public schools staffed by decently paid teachers? Public education is a cherished American value. It’s not about aping parental bias or spitting back memorized facts: It’s about creating inquisitive minds and learning about a world beyond one’s immediate doorstep.
— Arielle Emmett
Editor’s note: Emmett is a Fulbright scholar and journalist. News coverage of legislation the General Assembly passed last year regarding the Paycheck Protection Program loans included reports from WBTV (avl.mx/c0m) and WRAL (avl.mx/c0n).