Last month marked the beginning of the end for public education in North Carolina when the General Assembly passed a budget that would strip over half a billion dollars from our state's already cash-strapped school systems.
Lawmakers were quick to take to Twitter, Facebook and their media mouthpieces, saying they actually raised the budget slightly from last year. But it was nothing more than deceptive spin, as their numbers don't take into account adjustments for inflation or the steady stream of new students pouring into our schools. The truth is, state legislators have sent a strong message with this budget: North Carolina — once highly regarded for its emphasis on education — no longer gives a damn.
It no longer gives a damn about its teachers. The new budget eviscerates important incentives for teachers, doing away with pay raises, phasing out tenure and eliminating the salary boost for educators with advanced degrees. Our state already ranks dead last in teacher salary growth. I find it hard to believe any educator — much less the "best and brightest," whose classrooms we all hope our children land in each year — would stay here now. During the House floor debate, Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, dubbed this budget "No Teacher Left Standing," which is exactly what we're about to see as teachers migrate to neighboring states, such as Virginia and Tennessee, where salaries start tens of thousands of dollars higher and classrooms are half the size.
North Carolina no longer gives a damn about its children. Instructional supplies have been cut 14 percent, despite schools already having a severe textbook shortage and virtually no textbooks that support the newly implemented Common Core curriculum. Classroom size is increasing while the number of teacher assistants is decreasing. Teacher assistants give vital one-on-one attention to students — everything from extra help with lessons to monitoring activities.
Funding for repair and replacement of school buses has been dropped by $30 million. Many school districts, including my child's, already have their buses doing double duty — transporting middle school and high school children together — because they lack enough buses to transport them exclusively. As more buses fall into disrepair, will they be forced to group kindergartners with sophomores?
There is one place our lawmakers are willing to spend money — private education. Beginning in 2014, $10 million will be siphoned from public education and given to parents who'd like to enroll their children in private schools. Hey, that'll be every parent now, right? Well, sorry. With a $4,200 allotment per student, only about 2,380 students out of 1.5 million in the state will receive the vouchers. Funding could rise to $40 million in the voucher program's second year, if it follows the funding plan laid out in the original proposition of the bill.
But the most troubling part of the vouchers program is that it offers nothing in the way of oversight. There is no accountability for private schools receiving these public funds. Plus, in other states that have enacted similar legislation, results have been horrendous.
In Florida, the state gave millions of taxpayer dollars to swindlers who set up "private schools" and preyed on low-income church-goers, having them request voucher funds from the state to send their kids to a rented strip-mall space filled with lawn chairs. No lesson plans, no certified teachers and no textbooks. Students were abused by physical discipline practices that had been outlawed in Florida's public school system for years. Some school administrators were convicted of stealing their students' identities and one student died when a 17-year-old with a learner's permit was driving his school bus.
So far, there is nothing in North Carolina's version of the vouchers program that would prevent these same types of incidents from taking place here. Why? Because the state doesn't give a damn.
Why are the same lawmakers who refused federal dollars to expand Medicaid, eviscerated insurance for the unemployed, and sought to treat food stamp and welfare applicants like common criminals, willing to socialize private schooling with no oversight, even with historical evidence showing it's a terrible idea? Because ALEC says they should.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, the secretive right-wing extremist organization responsible for notorious laws like "Stand Your Ground" and Arizona's "Show me your papers" immigration policy also has the goal of privatizing public education on their agenda. ALEC wrote the vouchers language almost word for word.
House Speaker Thom Tillis is a national board member of ALEC, and ALEC's former state chairman is Gov. Pat McCrory's legislative lobbyist. Other members include North Carolina corporate titans Duke Energy and RJ Reynolds.
Large for-profit education corporations, including Sylvan Learning Centers and K-12 Inc., are the ALEC members heavily involved in drafting this type of legislation, which is also working its way through other states. It's pretty obvious what their motivations are, isn't it?
So maybe North Carolina does give a damn — about corporate profits and special interests.