Speaker Thom Tillis has declared this “Education Week” in the House and has invited school superintendents and top principals from across the state to participate in question and answer sessions in the House chamber.
That’s a good idea. Lawmakers need to hear more from local school officials about what is actually going on in classrooms every day.
Tillis said he hoped the exchanges will allow the educators to feel comfortable challenging lawmakers “when they see legislation moving that they believe might be operationally problematic.”
Superintendents have no doubt found many things “operationally problematic” in the last two years, particularly the deep budget cuts that have increased class sizes, laid off teachers and teacher assistants, slashed funding for textbooks and supplies and turned away thousands of at-risk four year olds from pre-k programs that improve their chances of academic success.
More than two dozen superintendents came to Raleigh last year to testify before the State Board of Education about the damage caused by those cuts and they came from Republican as well as Democratic counties.
The final budget passed by the General Assembly last summer allocated 11 percent less to public education than lawmakers spent in 2007-2008 even as enrollment has increased every year since.
The reductions are simply startling. There are several thousand fewer teachers and teacher assistants in classrooms than were there just two years ago.
Since 2010 textbook funding has been slashed by 80 percent, leaving many schools without enough books for all its students. That certainly seems like an operational problem.
And it’s not just funding.
Lawmakers lifted the cap on charter schools last year and dozens of new charters have been authorized and another 150 applications are on the way. This explosion comes even as questions about the accountability of charters continue to mount.
Sara Ovaska with N.C. Policy Watch reported last month about the questionable practices of a charter school in Winston-Salem that has become a basketball factory, recruiting international players whose education is supported by taxpayer funding diverted from traditional public schools.
State officials are also taking another look at a charter scheduled to open this fall after it was discovered that the school’s application was plagiarized, raising serious questions about the credibility of the school’s leaders.
Despite the problems and the vastly understaffed state office that is supposed to oversee charters, lawmakers are poised to consider less regulation of charters this session, not more.
Tillis said this week that legislation will also be filed to provide vouchers or tax credits for some parents to use at private and religious schools. That would mean more funding siphoned away from public education and sent to largely unaccountable schools.
Research shows no real academic benefit to charters or vouchers, but both are key parts of the current Republican ideology about education.
Then there is the role that poverty plays in how well students perform. Study after study shows that poverty makes it more difficult for children to excel in school, yet the current General Assembly just voted to deny emergency unemployment benefits to 170,000 laid off workers and their families and deny another 500,000 low-income people health care under the Affordable Care Act.
That will certainly be operationally problematic for those families and the students who live in them.
It’s also worth noting that “Education Week” in the House comes as Governor Pat McCrory continues to insist that our schools are broken, even as graduation rates are at an all-time high and teachers and principals are working harder than ever to help students learn despite the additional hardships the recent budget cuts have created.
But good for Speaker Tillis for setting up this week to hear from school officials. He and his colleagues in the House ought to get an earful.
Let’s hope they can manage to put their ideology aside and actually listen to what the educators are telling them.