While it’s not clear that state lawmakers have concluded their business in Raleigh for the year, vastly different stories are already being told about the 2013-14 legislative session and, especially, the changes to our public education system. Some politicians and advocates are already crowing that it was a period of awesome success. Others are wondering out loud how such a relatively small group of people could harm one large state in such a profound way.
Imagine, however, if you were a sharp student in a North Carolina public school – especially a low income student of color. You have been living the story.
You will have heard the adults debating whether one set of adults (the legislature) was paying another set of adults (your teachers) well enough. Instinctively, you know things have been hard for your teachers because children pick up on things like stress and low morale.
If you are in a lower-income school, you have probably seen teachers who work for Teach for America not paying as much attention to the salary debate. Your school also probably has the least experienced teachers but you know that the teachers that have been there for years are likely to stay. That is, if they do not move some place out of state as happened with a couple of your teachers last year.
Your teachers do not share their money problems in class but their comparatively paltry salaries are hard to hide and have been in the news all year long. Recently, there’s been word that they are about to receive a sizable raise.
Unfortunately, you find out what the expression “robbing Peter to pay Paul” really means when you learn that some of the raise your teacher is getting is actually coming from the pay he or she was already going to get for remaining in a teaching career. Actually, you learn what it means to rob Peter in his or her later teaching years to pay Peter now.
If you are as especially astute student, you may have also heard something about how your school district does not really know where the money for next year is coming from. Something about the state no longer paying for the number of kids expected to be in school and instead just dealing with growth when it happens. It’s all pretty confusing, but you do figure out that if the school ends up spending money on students it did not expect, already scarce resources are going to get even scarcer.
All that said, you do think that there must be money for schools because you’ve heard the state is going to give some people $10 million to go to private schools. Then you hear that another $840,000 is going to private schools. You are told as a low income, minority student that this money is to help you “soar” because your public school is “failing.”
It almost sounds like a good idea until you hear about your friend’s situation who’s struggled in school. He won a lottery to receive a voucher and tried to get into the cheapest private school but could not pass the entrance exam. Since you know the family, you wonder where his parents were going to get the extra money to pay for the private school even if he did get in because you see every dollar his family has go toward basic needs.
Then you think “if my public school is failing, maybe the money for vouchers should be spent on the school where most of the students the legislature says it is helping will remain.” You cannot make sense of this either.
The voucher issue also makes you wonder about another matter – segregation. In history class, you have celebrated 2014 as the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and its importance in ending legal school segregation in America. But then you look and see that vouchers seem to be encouraging kids to go to schools that are all (or almost all) one race. Then you hear that the legislature defeated a proposal that would have prevented public charter schools from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The very thing Brown v. Board is designed to destroy, discrimination, is the very thing the legislature will now let charter schools do.
The bottom line: If you’re a student “living” the education policy decisions of the 2013-14 North Carolina General Assembly, you can be forgiven for wondering if state leaders are thinking less about you and more about their next election.
Christopher Hill is the Director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.