North Carolina schools are heading in a dangerous direction.
That was the message that Page McCullough and the non-partisan Public Schools First NC organization brought to Walnut Cove last week when they met with a small gathering of local educators and concerned citizens.
“We are trying to build a grass roots statewide network to advocate for quality education,” said McCullough, highlighting the state’s successes over the past 145 years noting that the state has traditionally had excellent educational environments, small class sizes, well rounded and innovative curriculum, reasonable ways to measure success, and excellent and caring teachers.
She said that over the years North Carolina has led in key education initiatives including forming the nations’s oldest state university, stating the first comprehensive community college system, and starting the Smart Start program.
Currently the state is enjoying its highest four year graduation rate, 80.4 percent, and lowest drop-out rate, 3.01 percent, according to McCullough.
“The most important thing is the quality of teachers,” she said. “We need to keep our best teachers here and pay them fairly and make sure they get the mentoring and the professional development they need.”
Unfortunately, according to McCullough, that is one area the state is not doing so well in.
“North Carolina is 48th in the nation in per-pupil funding,” she said. “I never in a million years thought I would see this.”
State funding per student has dropped constantly since 2008 while enrollment has increased. In 2008 the state funded $5,780 per pupil and had 1,476,566 students while in 2013 the state funds $5,542 per pupil and has 1,509,925 students.
McCullough said when inflation is factored in, state education spending has dropped from $8.4 billion in 2008 to $7.9 billion in 2014. She said the state has seen similar declines in student teacher ratios where in 2008 there were approximately 100,000 teachers for 1,450,000 students and in 2013 those numbers dropped to 95,000 teachers for closer to 1,500,000 students.
“We are only funding $43 per student for textbooks and technology which is a quarter of what it was four years ago,” she said. “The English as a Second Language budget has been cut in half. The reality is teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.”
North Carolina has dropped from 24th in the nation for teacher pay in 2003 to 46th in the country in 2012, according to McCullough, who said part of the problem is the growth of charter schools and the use of public funds, through vouchers, to fund those programs.
“We currently have 127 charter schools and we will have 26 more in 2014,” said McCullough. “It is possible we will have over 200 within a couple of years.”
She said charter schools do not have the same oversight as public schools, do not have to provide transportation or meals, only have to have 50 percent of their teachers certified, and have no curriculum requirements.
“$10 million is being taken from public school funds for private and religious school tuition,” she said, “and there is not going to be any way to compare the progress of students in them to those in public education.”
The Opportunity Scholarship Program, passed by the General Assembly went into effect on Feb. 1 and grants a $4,200 scholarship for low-income students to attend private or charter schools.
Two state organizations, the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center, say the voucher program is unconstitutional and have filled a lawsuit against it.
The lawsuit says the voucher law violates Article IX, Section 6 of the N.C. Constitution, which says public funds for education “shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
To date, approximately 40 out of 115 of North Carolina’s local education agencies have signed on to the lawsuit, including Catawba, Surry and Yancey counties. The Stokes County School Board has not wieghed in on the lawsuit yet.
McCullough encouraged all in attendance to talk to their friends, family, and state representatives about the issue.
“There are many people who are just beginning to understand what is going on,” she said.
“This is all about money and privatization,” said Steve Shelton, one of the audience members. “Investors are telling people to invest their money in for-profits schools. You cannot convince me that we do not have a small group of people that are doing everything they can to push things to privatization. It is a Trojan horse to get it on the books so they can get it expanded.”
Another audience member, Ann R. Brady, the former Director of Exceptional Programs for Rockingham County Schools, noted that charter schools did not have the requirements to provide a variety of services to students with special needs.
“We are almost undoing Brown vs The Board of Education,” she said. “What is going to start happening is the good kids, the rich kids, the parents who know how to access these vouchers will be going to the charter schools and at some point you will look at the public schools and see they are full of kids who cannot go anywhere else. The public schools will be the place for the leftovers. It breaks my heart.”
Ashley Johnson, with the Stokes County Association of Educators, said lack of funding for education and the lack of a raise or even a move up the steps of the state pay scale in recent years is having a demoralizing effect locally.
“Teachers are tired and demoralized and a lot of them are looking for ways to serve children in a different way,” she said. “They are asking, how can I do what I love, but not in this situation.”
“This is a real economic issue for our county,” said Shelton. “Our school system is the largest employer in Stokes County. Losing money for public school is an economic disaster for this county. When you attack public schools in rural places you are attacking communities. It is an economic and social disaster.”
Stokes County School Board Member Mike Rodgers was at the meeting to hear the opions voiced and said his board was very aware of the financial problems caused by charter schools.
“Millennium Charter comes up two or three times in every meeting,” he said, noting that this year 61 Stokes County students attended charter schools in either Surry or Forsyth county.