Frittering away hard fought gains

Frittering away hard fought gains

- in Progressive Voices


Start of new school year highlights North Carolina’s declining commitment to education

Of the many public policies North Carolina has followed across the decades, none has brought greater dividends than the state’s commitment to invest in education at all levels.

No other policy has done more to support the state’s economy by attracting and nurturing businesses eager to take advantage of a well-prepared workforce. No other policy has done more to enhance the lives of millions of residents.

North Carolina was able to elevate itself above its Southern peers as a state that truly grasped the link between knowledge and opportunity. If there are regions bypassed by prosperity – sadly, there are many – our thriving communities stand as beacons of the possible. The N.C. Council of Churches is not alone in seeing a strong education system backed by ample resources as key to the spread of opportunity accessible to all, even to people who seem to have the deck stacked against them.

Not that the virtues of education spending have always been universally recognized. As was typical in the American South, there were forces who preferred to avoid the taxation needed to finance schools and universities. There were employers who were satisfied to keep workers’ horizons limited to the fields and the mills. There were racists who stood against the hopes of minority citizens to better themselves through schooling.

The state also had to cope with a legacy of poverty that limited the funds available for public investment of all kinds. But despite the obstacles, a consensus for better education emerged – supported by enlightened business leaders and politicians of both parties. The University of North Carolina system emerged as a national pacesetter, as did the state’s community colleges. Whole “knowledge industries” blossomed as a result.

The challenges were greatest in elevating the standards of the public schools, where money was stretched the thinnest and student achievement lagged. But a sustained effort over the last 30-plus years to make the state’s schools more effective – for example, by raising teachers’ salaries and thus helping keep good teachers in our classrooms – was paying off. Academic performance was on the upswing, and North Carolina’s reputation as a place where companies could tap a deep pool of qualified workers continued to set us apart.

Chances to climb

As another academic year gets under way, with school buses rolling and classes of all kinds convening, much about those scenes looks comfortably familiar. Young people’s energy and optimism still inspire. Their families’ fondest dreams are for their fulfillment and success. Parents know that for those dreams to be realized, young people must have every chance to climb the education ladder – and that the ladder must be sturdy and wide.

None of the decisions on education spending made by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory as they approved a new state budget will smash that ladder beyond repair. But it will be weakened. The consequences will be felt.

Legislative leaders and the governor have dwelt on the fact that the new budget for public schools actually is larger than the previous one. But the Department of Public Instruction counters that much of the supposed 4.8 percent increase represents money that is “either not new to schools or represent(s) status quo funding only, and will not go to support the additional services or personnel needed to help students learn.”

The gist of the problem is that the new budget fails to keep pace with school systems’ rising costs. Searching for ways to keep spending down, legislators have directed that class sizes will increase, meaning that the budget pays for fewer teachers.

Changes will be incremental – it’s not as though classes will suddenly be twice as large. But adding even a few students makes the burden on teachers, already overworked and underpaid, that much heavier. It raises the chance that a student won’t get the attention he or she needs. Then there are the early-grades teachers who will lose the support of teacher assistants. About a fifth of those assistants will lose their jobs as their positions are scrapped. Plenty of kids will notice the difference.

Self-pay for supplies

Teachers also will have to pay even more out of their own pockets for classroom supplies as state support shrinks. Textbook inventories, never plentiful, will be stretched even further. It’s as though legislators actually wanted to make teaching more difficult and to make teachers themselves feel less appreciated as their pay levels drop toward the bottom of national rankings. And teachers who could anticipate a raise if they went on to earn a graduate degree no longer will have that incentive as the pay premium is erased.

All this and more takes place while state leaders signal their enthusiasm for private alternatives to public education. They signal it not just with words but with money – as in the $10 million set aside to finance an “opportunity scholarship” private school voucher program. Perhaps if the state were flush with revenues and public education funding were robust, there’d be room for this kind of experiment. As things stand, it marks a retreat from what should be one of the state’s top priorities.

Despite perennial funding challenges, North Carolina’s community college system is regarded as one of the nation’s best. It’s been a new-skills lifeline for thousands of residents buffeted by economic change, and it’s given many young people an affordable and accessible entry port into higher education. The new budget spares the community colleges from major cuts but still falls short of what it would take to keep operations at current levels. Students who can’t find openings in the classes they need will know whom to thank.

A slippery stone?

The education budget knife cuts deepest at the UNC campuses – perhaps not unexpectedly, given that conservatives running the legislature don’t tend to feel much warmth for academicians they often perceive as pampered liberals.

But a good-quality, affordable education at one of North Carolina’s public universities has been a priceless stepping stone for generations of our young people. Forcing the campuses to cut, cut and cut some more – exactly what’s happened during recent years of recession and political turnover, now even more dramatically – doesn’t make life difficult only for chancellors and professors. It risks the futures of those who count on the universities to help prepare them for careers making full use of their talents and to position them as the civic leaders of tomorrow.

The university system also has anchored the state’s efforts, successful in many respects, to overcome the decline of traditional manufacturing and transition toward an economy propelled by research and technology. As an economic buttress, it’s been indispensable. Just as with any large organization, the pursuit of greater efficiency is proper and necessary. But North Carolina would take a terrible hit if the universities were squeezed to the point where the quality now distinguishing many of their programs came to be seen as a thing of the past.

Legislators and Gov. McCrory will be quick to note that schools and campuses are opening these days on schedule, that students are eager, parents are supportive, teachers and faculty are giving it their best shot. Of course they are, and it’s to their credit.

But the excitement of a new school year would be that much greater if it weren’t for the misguided decisions that are forcing educators at all levels to try to do more with less. The elected leaders who set the new budget did so only after cutting taxes by some $500 million over the next two years – tax cuts that will go mainly to upper-income earners and big corporations.

The idea is to help create jobs. But nothing creates jobs like good public schools, solid community colleges and reasonably priced, well-resourced universities. This legislature and governor would have done well to place more importance on ensuring full educational opportunities for all, including young people of meager circumstances eager to better themselves, than on giving tax breaks to those on whom fortune has already smiled.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s  News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.