Opinion

Why you should worry about public schools

The Charlotte Observer editorial board

Betsy DeVos, a charter-school backer, is poised to be the next U.S. secretary of education.
Betsy DeVos, a charter-school backer, is poised to be the next U.S. secretary of education. AP

All the stars are aligning – in Charlotte, North Carolina and the United States – to make us jittery about what’s on the horizon for kids in public schools.

Nothing is more essential to the country’s future than all children getting a high-quality education. But that’s not happening, and the choice movement sweeping the state and nation is likely to make things worse. Instead of helping spark innovation, the headlong rush toward privatization of public schools appears part of an organized effort to undermine public education for the benefit of a few.

That phenomenon combines with a few unsettling developments in Mecklenburg County to demand attention.

Let’s start in Charlotte:

The school board indicated last week that it’s throwing the brakes on its effort to change student assignment boundaries in a way that will help chip away at high-poverty schools. Superintendent Ann Clark, staff and the board had expected to embark this year on the second phase of student assignment changes after unanimously backing the first phase last year. Now several board members want to pause.

Dozens of CMS campuses struggle with extremely high levels of student poverty. That inhibits learning, and every delay in addressing it sets those children further back. Some will never recover.

With the superintendent search behind them, board members are positioned to focus on student assignment. Prolonged uncertainty on that front could endanger public support for a much-needed bond referendum planned for the November ballot.

Amid all this, Clark leaves June 30, taking with her decades of institutional knowledge and passion for children. And Tom Tate and Eric Davis, thoughtful board members who have served for years, end their tenure. What new Superintendent Clayton Wilcox brings and how he will get along with the board is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, in Raleigh, Republicans are expected to accelerate charter-school expansion and greatly expand their voucher program. Charter schools were created as laboratories that might craft educational methods to be shared widely with traditional public schools. Little of that has happened.

Many charter schools are achieving impressive results with underprivileged children. But the industry’s rapid expansion and its sometimes-spotty oversight have permitted a number of costly failures.

Vouchers, meanwhile, take tax dollars from public schools and send them to unaccountable private schools, including religious schools free to discriminate in their student selection. Republicans’ thirst for expanding North Carolina’s voucher program is a direct threat to public education. With state per-pupil spending already too low, taking more from the public schools is not wise. The new superintendent of public instruction, Mark Johnson, supports charters and vouchers.

Backers of all of this will only be emboldened by Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos is a passionate supporter of diverting money from traditional public schools and pouring it into charters and vouchers. She aligns with Trump, who in his campaign proposed spending $20 billion in tax money on private-school vouchers.

That’s not a good sign for the country, for North Carolina or for Charlotte. Public schools are in trouble, now more than ever.

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