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Fix our public schools; don’t raze them

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What is the education “reform” plan of the current North Carolina General Assembly? Sadly, at this point, it’s looking more and more like the only significant initiative is school vouchers. Recently, members of the Education Committee in the North Carolina House approved a voucher plan that would spend $100 million in tax dollars over three years on “scholarships” for students to attend private schools.

At this point, it appears the bill will, regrettably, continue to work its way through the General Assembly. This is true even though: a) vouchers have been never shown to improve student achievement and b) the money provided to low-income families will not be enough to enroll in any private school worth attending.

The tragedy in all of this is that there are numerous, common sense steps that lawmakers could be taking to improve our public schools without starving them of precious resources, remaining 48th (or worse) in the nation in per-pupil funding or moving towards privatization.

Take, for instance, the all-too-widespread school-to-prison pipeline. There are viable, common sense solutions to this problem – most notably reducing out-of school suspensions. There is no benefit to the student or society to deprive a child of an education. While students can be disruptive and sometimes dangerous, there are other ways of handling the issue. The Opportunity to Learn Campaign along with the group Dignity in Schools developed “Solutions Not Suspensions” which is a call for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions. Better assessment and placement of troubled kids can also make an enormous difference.

We should also consider “de-prisoning” our schools. Metal detectors and School Resource Officers (SROs) create an atmosphere of education criminalization. While security measures are obviously necessary, we ought to have a concerted effort in using Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Rather than waiting to punish student behavior with negative consequences, PBIS requires the creation of a culture of respect and expectations of good behavior and compliance.

Another area that we can fix is the overreliance on the scores of high-stakes tests. We should consider alternative assessments that allow students to be promoted if he or she shows proficiency in a portfolio of work collected by the teacher throughout the school year. For students who are less motivated and do not participate by handing in homework or putting effort in class work and will not show proficiency through a portfolio, let them take the test (and advance if they demonstrate proficiency).

Providing better pay and respect to our teachers is also essential. The state simply must rise from 46th in the nation in teacher pay and make sure teachers do not need a second job. Like other professionals, we should expect teachers to be considering innovative techniques rather than worrying about their bills.

The state also needs to recognize that teaching is a job that cannot be mastered in just a few weeks worth of training. Right now, the state frequently treats persons with Bachelor’s Degrees in Education the same as it treats those who have completed a Teach for America or the NC Teacher Corps “boot camp” program. While these latter programs are well intended and can be helpful, they simply are not the same as a fully-fledged teaching degree and are in no way adequate preparation for permanent employment – especially in our state’s highest-need, lowest- income schools.

Another factor is segregation. Too many North Carolina public schools are segregated by race and socioeconomic status. We know through research that all students benefit from integrated schools. Achievement gaps close or at least do not get wider when poor students have access and exposure to their more affluent peers. The more well-off students learn how to respect and appreciate those different from them which is proven to be a benefit in higher education and the business world. We should continue to try and create diversity programs like the one that has been successful in Wake County.

Put simply, our schools are fixable. Rather than embracing a false “solution” like vouchers (which have not been successful in Milwaukee, Cleveland or Florida and ruled unconstitutional in Louisiana), we should be rebuilding and repairing the systems we have.

Of course, this ought to be self-evident. Regardless of what we do with vouchers, 90% of students will remain in public schools. It’s critical therefore that we not throw-up our hands in despair (or merely bring them down to hand a voucher to a private school that only a small percentage of students can use). When we give $100 million to private schools it is not because public schools are failing, it is because we are failing public schools. We must do better than that.

Chris Hill is the Director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.