EDWARD B. FISKE & HELEN F. LADD: North Carolina - A state at risk
EDITOR'S NOTE: Edward B. Fiske, a former Education Editor of the New York Times, writes the Fiske Guide to Colleges. Helen F. Ladd is Professor Emerita of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University..
Forty years ago this spring a national commission charged with evaluating the quality of American education issued a blistering report entitled “A Nation at Risk.” It cited a “rising tide of mediocrity” in the country’s schools and declared that the country’s failure to provide high quality education “threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
North Carolina leaders took this warning to heart. They began investing heavily in public education and even became a model for other states in areas such as early childhood education. Significantly, the state was making progress toward fulfilling its obligation under the North Carolina Constitution to provide a sound, basic education for all students.
The situation started to change, however, in 2012 when Republicans came to power and began an assault on public education that continues to this day.
When it comes to public education, North Carolina is now “A State at Risk.”
The Republican assault has taken multiple forms, starting with inadequate funding. North Carolina now ranks 50th in the country in school funding effort and 48th in overall funding. Despite widespread teacher shortages, the Republicans have kept teacher salaries low -- $12,000 below the national average – and they have failed to provide adequate funding for the additional support staff that schools need.
In addition, they have permitted significant growth in the number of charter schools. Such schools divert much-needed funds from traditional public schools and make it difficult for local boards of education to operate coherent education systems.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is currently working hard to weaken public education by politicizing the process. Pending legislation would regulate how history and racism are taught, give a commission appointed mainly by lawmakers the job of recommending standards in K-12 subjects, and transfer authority to create new charter schools from the State Board of Education to a board appointed by the General Assembly.
The problem is about to get even worse. The Legislature is now poised to expand the earlier Opportunity Scholarship program, which had provided public funds for low income children to attend private schools, into a much larger universal voucher program that would make all children eligible regardless of family income – at an estimated cost of more than $2 billion over the next 10 years.
Given that private schools are operated by private entities typically with no public oversight and no obligation to serve all children, why in the world would it ever make sense to use taxpayer dollars to support private schools?
A common argument has been that voucher systems raise achievement levels of the children who used them. While some early studies of small scale means-tested voucher programs in places like Milwaukee showed small achievement gains in some cases, recent studies of larger voucher programs in places such as Ohio, Louisiana and Indiana consistently show large declines in average achievement -- often because of the low quality of the private schools that accept vouchers.
Supporters also argue that vouchers provide more schooling options for children and that having more choices is a good thing. But in the context of education policy that need not be the case. Americans support public education – and make schooling mandatory – not only for the benefits it generates for individual children but also for collective benefits such as the creation of capable workers and informed citizens. What matters is the quality of education for all the state’s children.
An expanded voucher program would lead to a substantial outflow of funds from traditional public schools to privately operated schools, with the potential for a significant loss in the quality of our public schools, and subsequent vitality in the state’s economy.
A strong public education system – from elementary and secondary schools to the nation’s first public university, the University of North Carolina – has long been pivotal to our state’s cultural, political and economic success. We must stop the current assaults on public education and reaffirm our commitment to one of North Carolina’s great strengths.
Back in 1983 when the education system of the nation was “at risk,” President Ronald Reagan – who had earlier been lukewarm in his support of public education -- took the warning seriously and began touring the country to talk about the problem. His successors from both parties then took up the cause and continued to make the case that a strong public education system is essential for a vibrant economy, and importantly, to make the policy changes needed to strengthen it.
Let’s hope that our current Republican leaders in this state can muster the wisdom and courage to follow the example of President Reagan and other leaders from both parties in pushing for strong public education. In the absence of such wisdom, we will indeed continue to be “A State at Risk.”
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