Is the 'Common School' Ideal Doomed in North Carolina?

Is the 'Common School' Ideal Doomed in North Carolina?
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Remember when North Carolina was considered a leader in the south and the nation in education? Remember when once-gubernatorial candidate Terry Sanford, with the support of the business community, ran -- and won -- on a platform that included an increase in the sales tax to improve schools?  Remember when Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, again with the support of the business community, created the More at Four program to support preschool education for children from low-income families, a program that became a model for other states? 
As school integration progressed -- unevenly and sometimes grudgingly -- in the last several decades of the 20th Century, North Carolina benefitted from leaders from both major parties who were committed to improving learning for all children in the state. They embraced the ideal of the "common school:"  free public schools open to students from all backgrounds. Underlying this commitment was a shared understanding that the strength of democratic societies depend on an electorate educated together in the same schools. 

The days of North Carolina leading the way in public education are behind us. Teachers' salaries have now sunk to 46th in the country -- and 48th for beginning teachers. Recently, public outcry led state leaders to announce an increase for beginning teachers to staunch the flow of teachers to higher paying neighboring states. The Teaching Fellows Program, a model other states have emulated for bringing talented young people into the teaching profession, has been eliminated, despite strong evidence of these teachers' effectiveness in helping their students learn. Tenure for teachers, whose most important feature is ensuring due process before dismissals, is, in effect, being eliminated. The 10 percent salary increase teachers received to help recoup the cost of earning a master's degree has also been cut. At the same time, state funding is being increasingly funneled to private entities -- charters run by private companies, vouchers, and Teach for America. (Here's how some nonprofits contract with for-profit companies to run charter schools.)

One of the ironies here is the evidence that our schools have improved in recent years. The four-year graduation rate is at an all-time high. Thanks in part to additional funding from the Race to the Top grant and to the effective work of the Department of Public Instruction's "turnaround" team, the state's lowest achieving schools have improved very significantly. Despite persistent resource inequities across schools, many of the indicators of educational progress are moving in the right direction, albeit not as quickly as everyone wishes.

Listening to the legislative majority, you wouldn't know this. Their mantra is: "Our schools are broken." Certainly, the persistent disparities in student assessment results between many urban and rural schools, on the one hand, and most suburban schools, on the other, are unconscionable. Yet, little in the actions that the General Assembly and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory have taken promise to remedy these persistent inequities in opportunity, resources, and results.

Take for instance the "Read to Achieve" act passed by the Legislature in 2012. On the positive side, the legislation is grounded in two incontrovertible facts: If students aren't reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade, they are likely to struggle in higher grades and many will drop out; and far too many North Carolina students aren't reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade.

No one disagrees that ensuring that all students can read by the end of 3rd grade is essential. The rub, however, is that, to give the act "bite," the legislation dictates that 3rd graders who don't pass the state-mandated reading test can be held back. Yet, decades of research has shown that holding students back rarely helps and is more likely to lead to increased academic and disciplinary problems. Moreover, students from lower-wealth districts are likely to have fewer resources available to improve their reading ability. To the General Assembly's credit, the bill did include some additional funding to support districts' efforts to improve early reading.

At the same time, the "Read to Achieve" legislation with its high-stakes 3rd grade test and threat to hold students back reveals an underlying problem that is likely to plague public education in the state for the foreseeable future: Legislative leaders simply do not trust public schools and educators to improve student performance.

With an almost blind belief in the private sector's ability to solve all problems, they are committed to moving resources from public schools to private initiatives, specifically chartesr and virtual schools run by private companies and voucher programs. The Legislature has lifted the cap on the number of charters and attempted, unsuccessfully so far, to create a separate state board to oversee charters, a board whose membership the Legislature would control. In addition, the Legislature allocated $10 million for vouchers, although a Superior Court judge has suspended the program on constitutional grounds. A court battle is in the offing.

Most public school educators, parents, and advocates are deeply troubled by the shift of resources to the private sector. Draining these resources makes life more difficult for schools. The loss of over 3,000 instructional aides reduces the time teachers have to work individually with students with learning challenges. The budget for textbooks and materials was slashed dramatically while the tax break for teachers who buy their own materials was cut entirely.

Concerns about the direction of education in the state are widely shared. Researchers at UNC-Wilmington recently conducted a poll of 2,350 state residents. They found that 94 percent of the respondents believe that education is now headed in the wrong direction in the state. Large majorities disagreed with recent policy decisions: 85 percent disapprove of vouchers for students to attend private schools; 81 percent believe that the state should provide scholarships to talented high school students to attract them to teaching via the Teaching Fellows Program; 96 percent disagree with cutting the salary incentive for teachers to pursue master's degrees; and 75 percent disagree with eliminating tenure. In sum, probably a very significant majority of North Carolinians disagrees with the current policy direction.

The bad news for those concerned about where we are headed is that a number of key folks in the General Assembly are in "safe seats." This tends to make legislators less responsive to the concerns of the public. These lawmakers are highly unlikely to be turned out this fall -- or perhaps for several elections to come. In 2010, the Republican majority in the Legislature controlled redistricting. They were able to create for themselves election districts that virtually ensured their re-elections and the dominance of their party throughout the decade. Certainly, a number of these folks in the majority are open to conversation and debate about educational policy and attend to non-partisan research. Some who hold key leadership posts appear committed, however, to an agenda intent on replacing public schools with private schools.

Equally discouraging are the changes to the tax code. The majority passed legislation rolling back corporate and individual taxes. A flat 5.8 percent tax on incomes replaced the almost century-old graduated tax schedule. The cost to the state of these changes? Over $1 billion annually. At this rate, North Carolina is well on its way to meeting Grover Norquist's goal of shrinking the size of government to "where it can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." As the largest expenditure category in the state budget, education is already fighting for air.

Absent from much of the debate about the move toward privatization is attention to the role of public schooling in a democratic society. Our schools trace their origins back to 19th century public school advocates. Recognizing that an educated citizenry is essential to maintaining a democracy, they believed that mixing of children from all social classes in free "common schools" would lead to a stronger sense of shared civic purpose.

Due to persistent residential segregation, North Carolina failed to achieve the goal of schools where all our children - regardless of social class, race, or family circumstances - learn together. Yet, for many children, school remains the one place where they rub shoulders with others who differ from themselves socially, linguistically, and culturally. Like it or not, they must learn to get along with these "others" - arguably a critical attitude in a diverse democratic society such as ours.

Updated 3/17/2014 3:30 p.m.: Private schools are not obliged to accept all students, nor are they regulated or held accountable as are public schools. (An earlier version of this column mistakenly stated that charters weren't obliged to admit all students - they are.) In addition, research shows that significantly fewer special-needs students are enrolled in charters than in surrounding public schools despite legislation that prohibits discrimination against special-needs children. Policies that favor privatization weaken public schools and undermine the democratic purpose of publicly supported education. Providing more choices for families and students does not entail the erosion of our public schools. Districts across the country, particularly the larger ones, have been steadily expanding their array of schooling options as budgets permit. Supportive policies and funding could accelerate this movement.

Despite all their flaws, our public school remain our best hope for realizing the ideals of the early common school advocates. In North Carolina, we are moving away from those ideals.

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