By John Tate III
CHARLOTTE (August 23, 2023) – Why do we let our General Assembly dismantle K-12 public education as we have known it, to the detriment of our community’s kids and our economy?
It is our fault, you know. We are empowered as a people to change those who govern. We either just don’t care, or don’t know what’s going on, or like what we see. I have to ask you, is this what you want for our children?
- Traditional K-12 public schools are shrinking while home school, charters, private schools (as aided by increasing vouchers) are on the rise. The state is growing; traditional K-12 public education is not.
- It’s claimed we are spending more on public education than ever before, but what’s behind that claim? Look at real dollars spent today when compared to 2010 when the current party in power took over. Today’s spending levels are not better than 2008. When one considers per-pupil expenditures, the numbers tell us we have nothing to brag about when compared to our neighbors. We recently learned we are 50th out of 50 on what we spend on K-12 education as a percentage of state GDP. In other words, we have the capacity, but hardly the will, to invest in our children. The priority of the General Assembly simply lies elsewhere. (Remember, two-thirds of the cost of K-12 public education is funded by the state.) To my eyes, this boils down to less taxes and less government. Do we care about the long term, or are we satisfied near term with lower taxes and a poorly-funded school system? Between the pandemic and our chief governing body’s priorities, it would appear we are willing to sacrifice a generation of our children. What our economy will look like with a bunch of uneducated kids is another matter. The business community may like lower taxes today. What will they have to say about the quality of their workforce tomorrow? Is this a sound business strategy?
- Take a look at our community’s children here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Some 101 of our 180 schools are classified as Title I (high concentration of kids in poverty). Also, we have many of our other schools across the county with considerable populations of kids in poverty (e.g. Myers Park High School, but it is hardly alone). When one looks at the overall picture, two out of three kids in our local public schools live in poverty. And research bears out that we are more segregated today than we were 15 years ago. We are becoming a district locally (and for much of the state) comprised of kids of poverty and of color.
- During the pandemic, we had very low attendance across the district, struggling to make virtual education work. What you might not know is that a significant percentage of those with attendance issues then are continuing today, post-pandemic. Kids only learn when they are in school. Have we forgotten that our Title I school 3rd-graders were showing proficiency/mastery levels at less than 10% only a few years ago, for both reading and math? You wouldn’t tolerate that for your child.
- We are a resilient people, or have been in the past. But we are failing to make available a level playing field for all our kids. Our state constitution guarantees a “sound basic education” for all. How are we doing? Get to know the Leandro case: “The court has repeatedly deferred. The State has repeatedly failed,” the NC Supreme Court ruled. “All the while, North Carolina’s schoolchildren, their families, their communities, and the state itself have suffered the incalculable negative consequences. These extraordinary circumstances demand swift and decisive remedy.” We are falling way short.
- How to correct where we are? We can’t keep running teachers away, new and old. Veterans are leaving, and our colleges of education, which prepare new teachers and feed the state’s needs at our schools, are woefully down in attendance. And teacher pay? Teachers are struggling to live under wages and conditions that are woefully short of where they should be. How many would-be teachers are veering away from the profession, many guided by friends and family to consider other options? What are we saying about how we value the profession by how we fund it, including vouchers as incentives for students to leave public schools?
Our job is not to coddle our community’s children, but to provide a framework that enhances one’s chance to graduate, with a diploma that reflects rigor and learning to equip them for the future. We need to fund our schools in accordance with need, especially to address the growing number of kids in our schools who live in poverty. Don’t scrimp on social workers, reading specialists, school psychologists, nurses. Ensure a decent work environment to meet kids where they are and work to get them where they need to be. Shrinking class size is a good first step. But we have got to have good teachers, in ample numbers, to get the job done. Then, hold our professionals to task. Make our schools accountable for the results we seek. But, first, invest in the business at levels that afford it a chance at success. Right now, our politicians are underinvesting in public education, then using the results as an excuse to criticize.
This is the land of opportunity. And we know it takes hard work by all: Our students, their parents and the professionals charged to ensure learning is taking place in the classroom. Let’s work to make that playing field level for all our kids.
If you don’t want any of this for our community’s kids, then stay the course. For the rest of us, it’s past time to act. Help educate your friends and associates on the facts. Encourage them to understand that the way to cure this rests at the ballot box.
It’s just not right, on every front.
John Tate III was a member of the N.C. State Board of Education from 2003-2015 and served for eight years on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.