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Are NC Republicans disrupting public education or destroying it?

 Gov. Cooper with kids in school
Gov. Cooper visited Haw River Elementary School on May 25, 2023, to highlight the need to protect public education.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper last week launched a war of words with his “state of emergency” tour, which included a visit to Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Huntingtowne Farms Elementary School. He accused Republican lawmakers of choking the life out of public education, dropping an atomic bomb on it, choosing corporations over classrooms, turning their backs on children, bringing political culture wars into classrooms and using political hacks to dictate what happens in schools.

Republicans have their own vocabulary for their quest to reshape public education: putting students ahead of systems, empowering parents, “choose your school, choose your future” (the title of the state’s voucher bill) and providing backpack funding that lets families take their chunk of taxpayer funding to whichever private school they choose. This isn’t just a local thing. Ginny Gentles, director of the Education Freedom Center at the Independent Women’s Forum, hosts a podcast called Students Over Systems. She was quick to say that “It is cruel of Governor Roy Cooper to declare a state of emergency so that he can force North Carolina children to attend residentially-assigned government schools.”

Cooper is speaking up, in part, because his veto became ineffective once Mecklenburg’s Rep. Tricia Cotham, elected in November as a Democrat, switched parties to give Republicans in the General Assembly enough votes to override it. Cotham appeared on FOX News to declare that “there is no emergency. This is political theater at its worst.”

Cooper was responding to a series of legislative actions, including a bill that dramatically expands eligibility and state funding for paying private school tuition, House and Senate budget plans with what Cooper considers shamefully small teacher raises, and bills that would restructure the state Board of Education, create a new panel to oversee curriculum and lay out a lengthy “parental bill of rights.”

You can find links to all the specifics here.

Cooper is urging voters to lobby their legislators to back away from these measures. It’s hard to imagine that will work, though he might sway some votes in 2024. When we discussed this on Charlotte Talks, WRAL’s Laura Leslie suggested his best hope lies in persuading influential business leaders that the GOP education agenda is bad for the state. If enough of them rally to Cooper’s side, they might wield clout that the average voters lack.

For years, critics have accused Republicans of trying to dismantle public education. I don’t think most of the GOP would agree with that, but they’re clearly working to disrupt it. Instead of casting public education as a path to equal opportunity and a point of civic pride, Republicans are recasting it as a bureaucracy that too often puts adult interests ahead of children’s. In their narrative, public schools are at least as deserving of skepticism and competition as of support.

The most ardent school choice advocates say there’s no need to attach strings to public money going to private schools. They say parents are the ultimate source of accountability. It seems to me that philosophical consistency would lead to ending all accountability measures, such as school performance grades for public schools and the state’s power to close underperforming charter schools. That would let public schools use the same marketing tactics as private ones and leave it to families to sort fact from fiction. But there’s no such move afoot.

It seems almost certain that North Carolina’s public schools will see massive change in the near future. What remains to be seen is whether this is the kind of disruption that, however painful, leads to innovation and improvement — or whether we’ll merely create more opportunities to make a profit from the public education budget.

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Some CMS updates

Last week, I wrote about the clumsy conclusion to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s superintendent search, including the fact that the board had little to say about Crystal Hill after voting 6-3 to promote her from interim to permanent superintendent. Melissa Easley, one of five new board members elected in November, explained that the board did that intentionally: “We decided as a board that this was going to be Crystal’s spotlight. And we wanted Crystal to share all of her accolades.”

I don’t doubt Easley’s sincerity, and there’s something to be said for folks who aren’t tied to the way things have always been done. But it’s hard not to contrast the low-key introduction for Hill, who happens to be the district’s first woman of color to win the job, with the hero’s welcome that greeted the hiring of Peter Gorman and Heath Morrison after national searches in 2006 and 2012, respectively.

Still, Hill is doing her part to sell herself to the community. She did a 50-minute, livestreamed forum with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus two days after her appointment. It's worth watching if you want to know more about the person who’s expected to be a longterm leader for the country’s 17th-largest school district.

A powerful bit of symbolism

Students who made big gains in math were recognized at a recent CMS board meeting.
Ann Doss Helms
Students who made big gains in math were recognized at a recent CMS board meeting.

When I arrived at last week’s school board meeting, I was surprised to see a huge crowd of sign-toting parents and students lined up outside the meeting chambers, waiting their turn to be admitted for a public hearing on south county boundaries. First priority for seating had gone to students who are demonstrating major growth in math, one of the board’s top academic priorities. Hill was continuing her tradition, which she started as interim superintendent, of summoning students and their families for recognition before a wonky dive into topics such as academic strategies.

To be clear, the families concerned about boundaries for southern schools were not dismissed or shortchanged. The board spent 35 minutes reviewing Hill’s boundary recommendation, followed by roughly 3.5 hours of listening to public comments. But the message was clear and powerful: Boundaries, buildings and commute times are an important part of the education experience.

But academic progress and the kids whose futures are at stake came first.

Seniors, don’t be idiots

Last week saw senior pranks at four area high schools — Mallard Creek in Charlotte, Sun Valley in Monroe, North Lincoln in Lincolnton and Burns in Lawndale — result in serious vandalism to schools and/or arrests of the teens involved. At Cleveland County’s Burns High, a way-too-trusting principal reportedly handed over keys for what she believed would be a harmless prank; the teens who tricked her likely put her career at risk as well.

Testing limits is part of the path to independence, and senior pranks can be a hoot (check out The Charlotte Observer’s fascinating roundup of 20+ years of newsworthy pranks in the area). At 17, I was a straight-A college-bound student … and a total bonehead about assessing risks. I’d have loved the Mallard Creek students’ idea of unlocking a classroom window to sneak inside later, though I’d have been more interested in staging some outrageous scene to freak out staff and students in the morning than in vandalizing hallways.

But that’s the thing: Once a mob mentality kicks in, teen judgment gets even worse. And unlike the 1970s, today there are cameras everywhere. Whether your actions get posted on social media or captured by school security cameras, you’re going to get caught. Some of the students who took part in vandalism are now facing the prospect of being banned from graduation ceremonies and facing criminal charges that could derail plans for college and jobs. I know it probably won’t mean much coming from someone my age, but please think twice before doing something dumb.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.