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Opinion The fight for the survival of public schools

Most of the education talk in this young General Assembly session has understandably focused on two areas, the potentially devastating budget cuts to public schools and the likelihood that the new Republican majorities will raise the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state or remove it completely.

Crippling budget cuts and thousands of layoffs of teachers and teacher assistants are inevitable if Republican leaders continue to refuse to consider raising new revenue to prevent the worst cuts or at least allow the temporary taxes passed in 2009 to continue.

Some change in the charter school cap is all but certain to pass, whether it’s good policy or not. Groups like the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association that have traditionally opposed raising the cap have announced publicly they are backing off that opposition now citing the new political realities in Raleigh.

But there’s another battle over education coming this session that could have more important long term consequences for public schools than raising the charter cap or even than deeply slashing the education budget.

The battle is for the survival of public schools as we know them. The anti-public school zealots who have long wanted to privatize public education with voucher schemes and tax credits are emboldened by the election of more pro-voucher lawmakers and are planning their dismantling of public education this year.

House Majority Leader Paul Stam told an education privatization audience last week that he wants to do far more this session than lift the cap on charters. Stam says his dream is that all schools are charters, which would be bad enough, and he doesn’t want to stop there.

Stam told the crowd that he will be introducing a bill in a couple of weeks that would provide a $2,500 tax credit for families that home school their child or send him or her to a private school. That’s far below the average tuition for private schools in North Carolina, making Stam’s plan really a way to give money to families who can already afford to send their child to a nonpublic school. He also says it will save the state $28 million, but the plan is not about the money.

It is about ending the traditional system of public education and turning it over the vagaries of the market, for profit and non profit. Stam’s tax credit and voucher scheme would drain resources from the already underfunded public schools and shift them to private academies serving the upper class families who can afford them.

He all but admitted that last week, using the example of legal services, saying that “there are government run law firms, legal aid, but that does not mean that everyone will do best by going to legal aid.”

Legal aid lawyers do amazing work, but they are paid far less and have far fewer resources at their disposal than attorneys in large, wealthy law firms. That’s Stam’s vision of the way education should work.

There will be one kind of education for families who don’t have much money, the public schools with far fewer resources than they need and a mandate to educate every child regardless of their academic level or disability. There will be another kind of selective schools for wealthy kids, well-funded schools with tuition well out of reach of most families, schools that can pick and choose who they educate, leaving the at-risk kids for somebody else to worry about.

Public schools are supported by all of us because all of our kids attend them and we have a stake in how well they all do. Education is not a product to sell like shoes or potato chips. The market by definition has winners and losers. We can’t afford to have kids lose.

The good news is that people in North Carolina don’t want public schools destroyed. A survey last fall by the Elon University Poll found that a clear majority in the state is opposed to a voucher scheme to privatize education.

Stam knows this and told the audience that his plan is a tax credit not a voucher because vouchers don’t do as well in the polls. Neither vouchers nor tax credits do well in educating all North Carolina students.

Advocates for high quality public schools ought to get involved in the charter school debate and work hard to convince lawmakers to raise new revenue to protect education from devastating budget cuts.

But they also must stand up to the gravest threat of all, the destruction of public education that would further divide our society and make it far more difficult for thousands of kids to succeed. Let’s fix public schools, not destroy them.


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