Why are GOP lawmakers destroying public schools?

Published June 1, 2023

By Tom Campbell

Public education is the most important function of state government and we spend more tax dollars on education than any other budget item. Given those two facts, a reasonable person would assume that everyone in our state, especially our legislators, would be doing everything humanly possible to excel in educating our young….all of them.

As John Adams, our second president said, “Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The stubborn facts are that our GOP legislature is diverting more energy, funding and emphasis into charters and private schools, while diminishing traditional schools.  

I single out Republicans because they control our legislature, however I also point out I don’t hear Democrats loudly and vocally opposing these efforts.

Student performance is not what we want and expect and, since the teacher is the single most important person in education, many want to blame them, especially what the right calls the “teacher’s union,” NCAE. They scream NCAE is too protective of underperforming teachers, but only 18 percent of our teachers are NCAE members, so it can’t be the reason we’re not succeeding. While on the subject, I don’t hear many of any stripe standing up to support our teachers when students refuse to behave, when governments (legislators !!!) interfere with the education process or when parents treat teachers little better than servants. I would like to hear more from teachers, but they are far too quiet because they fear for their jobs.

Here’s another indisputable fact: When it comes to public education the playing field is far from level.

We allowed charter schools to open in the late 90s and have greatly increased their numbers. These charters have much more flexibility and fewer constraints than traditional public schools. For instance, charters have more freedom in hiring teachers, don’t face the same facility requirements, enjoy fewer curriculum requirements, more leeway to discipline or expel students and greater calendar flexibility. They aren’t required to have cafeterias or transportation for students, a huge factor for parents in choosing where their child attends school. Perhaps that explains why 61 percent of more of those attending charters are white. But the single biggest advantage is that charters can pick and choose who they accept in their schools. While state law says student makeup should reflect county demographics it isn’t strictly enforced. Charters don’t have the same remediation, medical or special needs requirements, especially federal dictates. Finally, charters have added yet another level of administrative bureaucracy we are paying for. And, with all these advantages, charter school performance outcomes are somewhat better than traditional schools, but not dramatically.

Comparing traditional public schools or “district schools,” (as those on the right prefer to call them) with charters is like comparing apples to elephants.

For years Republicans touted school vouchers, saying parents should have the right to choose where their children go to school. In 2014, the Republican-led legislature introduced “opportunity scholarships,” vouchers for low-income parents to send their student to private schools. The voucher wasn’t enough to pay tuition in most private schools, so lawmakers increased the amount to $6,500 per year. The Assembly appropriated $500,000 to Parents for Educational Freedom, a Republican-aligned group, for a marketing effort to boost enrollments.

We knew where this was headed. We currently expend some $133 million for 25,000 children to attend private schools and now Republican leadership wants to offer vouchers to every child, with the voucher amount determined by family income.

If the playing field between charters and traditional schools is unlevel, the private school slopes almost 180 degrees. Privates have all the benefits of charters with even fewer restrictions and state oversight. For example, you cannot teach the 10 Commandments in public schools, but private schools regularly include religious instruction in their curriculum.

North Carolina law requires every child of school age to attend school and traditional public schools must accept any and all. Judicial verdicts have resulted in the requirement that most every student be mainstreamed, meaning traditional schools cannot segregate students by achievement levels, language levels, emotional, behavioral, income or other discriminants. The traditional school classroom is a mixture of have high achievers, those who aren’t, some who speak English well, others who don’t, and most all varieties of special needs.

The justification for advocating charters and private schools is that competition will make all schools better. That is a bald-faced lie! It’s a shell game, because the competition isn’t fair.

What will happen if we stay on the current trajectory destroying traditional schools? More students, predominantly white, will leave traditional schools and fewer and fewer dollars will be available to support them. In time, traditional schools will end up with lower performing and higher needs students. Lower test scores and student performance will result with increased demands. We will have gutted our traditional schools and the guarantee of every child having access to a sound basic education.

Many scoffed when Governor Cooper declared a state of emergency for public education, claiming he was overdramatizing or grandstanding. I believe he was trying to get our attention, forcing us to focus on a very real threat.

Most of us are products of public schools. What would have happened if our parent’s generation decided it wasn’t important? We cannot shirk our obligation to our children’s future and neither can we destroy traditional public schools. All schools who take state or federal tax dollars should operate with the same rules and regulations.