The battle of our time

The battle of our time

- in Progressive Voices


Now is the time for North Carolinians to wake up and stop elected officials from intentionally gutting our public schools.

North Carolina’s Governor and legislative leaders say they support public schools and want to help business. Their actions (and the actions of their allies) tell a different story.

Five years ago, a relatively low cost of living and a longstanding commitment to public education helped make North Carolina immensely attractive to top businesses and teachers alike.  In 2008, North Carolina paid teachers better than half the states in the nation.

Today, North Carolina ranks 46th in teacher pay and 48th in spending per student. Once this year’s cuts kick in, we can expect to hit the bottom.  Resources are so scarce that my son’s middle school language class was not permitted to write in their workbooks so they could be reused the next year.

What is going on in Raleigh?  The answer is simple and sobering: Many conservative leaders actually want our public schools (what they often derisively call “government schools”) to fail. This may sound shocking, but consider the following:

Kent Misegades is a former Director of Thales Academy, one of the private schools opened by conservative and political power broker and benefactor Bob Luddy.  Misegades has stated that, “The only true solution to our abysmal government schools is to close them and allow free markets to provide education.”

Sadly, these sentiments are indicative of the views of many prominent conservative leaders.  Despite their talk of “competition,” these ideologues are creating a playing field on which public schools have no chance to compete.  They are gaming the system to give private schools an unfair advantage.

Think about it: Conservatives financed the election of state lawmakers who share their desire to drain money from public schools. These lawmakers, in turn, enacted a wave of legislation designed to handicap the “competition.”

They created “vouchers” to divert tax dollars out of public schools and into private academies. (It is not a coincidence that the vouchers match the price of tuition at schools like those in the Thales chain.)

Next, they effectively cut teacher salaries and eliminated tenure (which had offered some security to teachers in exchange for their low pay).

Next, they did away with salary increases for advanced degrees.

None of these devastating limits apply to private schools. The conservatives gave them economic benefits— through vouchers—so that exclusive academies could dip into the shrinking pool of money that the public schools have left.

The idea that public and private schools are true competitors, like Coke and Pepsi, is nonsense. Coke and Pepsi play by the same rules. Private and public schools do not.

Private academies may hire whomever they want, teach what they want and cherry pick students. Public schools depend on our tax dollars. Their mission is to educate all children in our communities. They must vigilantly meet standards in teacher qualifications and curriculum.

Public schools must also provide special assistance to children with a dizzying array of challenges including, gifted abilities, disabilities, English as a second language, and psychological trauma from domestic violence.

In contrast, private schools have the luxury of choosing whether to accept children with diverse needs. Ron Margiotta, a former Wake School Board member and Thales trustee said, “Thales doesn’t take children with special needs, as they are too expensive to educate.”

Today, 90% of North Carolina children attend public school, and for most of them, private education is not and never will be an option. Unfortunately, the idea that every child in North Carolina should have the opportunity to get a quality education is not in the current conservative playbook.

Conservative leaders may want top students and teachers to leave the public schools. Their cuts suggest that motive. But their new policies are also bad for business because most of our children will lose the opportunity they have had to succeed as thinkers, creators and entrepreneurs in North Carolina.

It is time for North Carolinians to think seriously about whether the values of the current conservative leadership make sense for the rest of us. Do we want to be the state with the worst public schools? Is unfair competition in education to be the legacy of our generation?

We can demand a repeal of this spring’s legislative attack on public education. We can support the right to build private academies, but insist that they not be constructed in the ashes of our public schools. High quality education for all North Carolina children and the benefits of true competition will be realized only if both public and private schools are given the opportunity to thrive.

Deborah R. Gerhardt has three children enrolled in the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools and is an Assistant Professor of Law at the UNC School of Law.