By John Sanderson • Guest Columnist
It was great to learn recently about the effort the Haywood County Schools Foundation (HCSF) is making to support our school system in these difficult economic times. I applaud HCSF for donating $30,000 to the school system to mitigate somewhat the impact to our local schools of possibly losing 36 teaching positions in the upcoming school year (now forty-six, according to more recent estimates). There is also great merit in initiating a grassroots campaign to continue to generate local dollars and encourage volunteerism to lessen the impact of losing teaching positions. But I find it difficult to feel any real sense of satisfaction or comfort when reading about these admittedly exemplary local efforts, especially after seeing all of the proposed cuts to education in the House version of the state budget.
Thirty thousand dollars is certainly a significant outlay of funds, but this amount will not even pay for a full beginning teacher (actually, about 75 percent of one). For example, if the Foundation is unbelievably successful and raises, say, $120,000, that amount would provide funding for no more than four beginning teacher positions. The total amount of HCSF funding would reduce the number of lost teaching positions from 46 to a mere 42.
In other words, a likely best-case scenario would be for each of Haywood County’s schools to lose at least two teaching positions, and in a number of schools to lose as many as three or four, even after local citizens, businesses, and civic organizations, through the Foundation, have made tremendous efforts and fiscal sacrifices.
Some might suggest that these losses would not be all that harmful to individual schools, losing just a couple of teachers in most cases. But as a former teacher and recently retired school principal, I can assure you that the loss of even a single teacher in a relatively small school is very significant, especially in this period of intense scrutiny and high-stakes accountability. When faced with such reductions in teaching staff, principals are forced to make very difficult choices about resource allocation.
In an elementary school, for example, does the principal keep class sizes smaller in the early grades, when students need lots of individual attention as they develop basic academic and social skills that provide the foundation for future success? Or does she keep the numbers lower in the upper grades where scores on standardized tests determine the school’s status on federal and state accountability measures? Middle and high school principals in similar circumstances often have to consider entirely eliminating some course offerings and/or significantly increasing class sizes. No school system should have every principal in every school faced with such gut-wrenching decisions at the same time.
My greatest concern in the short term, then, is the all-but-certain loss of teachers in every Haywood school this coming year. A further concern, however, is that some communities in our state might be able to offset the impact of their reductions in state funding, thus contributing to an inequitable system of schooling across the state. Wealthier communities may have enough local resources to offset their losses, and that is great for them I suppose. But what about those counties like Haywood? In a state where the Constitution specifically states that “equal [educational] opportunities shall be provided for all students” in a “uniform system of free public schools,” can it ever be acceptable for school systems to have significant differences in the level of funding available to provide educational opportunities for the children in their care?
The N.C. Supreme Court actually provided an answer to that question a few years ago in the Leandro vs State of North Carolina decision. The Supreme Court ruled that the N.C. Constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools,” but the Court did not give much guidance as to what exactly constitutes a “sound basic education.” The Court did conclude, however, that the N.C. Constitution “does not require substantially equal funding or educational advantages in all school districts.” In other words, it is currently considered constitutional for kids in different communities across our state to have greater or lesser educational “advantages” on the basis of nothing more than the economic circumstances in those communities. Personally, I find this to be distressing, and I believe a lot of people would share my concern if they were aware of this N.C. Supreme Court decision.
I fear, moreover, that the already existing gap in educational opportunities between the “haves” and the “have-nots” will widen significantly if the currently proposed cuts come about. I believe that children from Murphy to Manteo (and from Hemphill to Hyder Mountain, for that matter) should have essentially the same educational opportunities and “advantages.” The fact that something is “constitutional” in the eyes of a majority of seven State Supreme Court justices does not necessarily make it desirable or even acceptable, and I find the very real possibility that we may soon have a noticeably tiered public educational system to be unacceptable. So, what are caring, concerned parents and citizens to do in the face of these threats to the equitable provision of quality educational opportunities throughout our state?
First of all, I fully support every effort the HCSF is making to lessen the impact of the budget cuts, so I would suggest that all concerned citizens support the HCSF and our schools. But I also think that now is a very appropriate, and even necessary time to remind our legislators that the N.C. State Constitution says that education is, in fact, a “right” of the people, and that the state has a “duty ... to guard and maintain that right.” I believe, furthermore, that concerned citizens need to let our representatives know that if the legislature approves these proposed cuts to educational funding, the state will not be fulfilling one of its key constitutional obligations. Even by applying the very minimal standard established in the Leandro case, is it remotely possible to provide the required “sound basic education” from one year to the next when there are going to be 6,005 fewer teachers to provide it, 4,663 fewer teacher assistants to help, possibly 5 to 10 fewer days to provide it in, no professional development for teachers (for at least two years), and $38 million less for textbooks? I think not.
Following are a few questions and comments I would like for our local legislators to consider. I then want them to return to Raleigh with a renewed commitment to take up leadership roles in fighting the myopic view of education that seems to be dominant at the moment:
• How can the state consider cutting professional and paraprofessional classroom positions so drastically and not consider making equivalent cuts in the increasingly monstrous testing/accountability program that is becoming (and in many ways already is) the “testing tail” that is wagging the “education dog?” Continuing to demand the same (or better) levels of performance on state tests while grossly reducing fundamental resources is nonsensical on the face of it. The testing/school accountability budget needs to be studied in depth to see where logical and significant reductions can be made, thus freeing up funds for hiring teachers and providing more meaningful curriculum support, rather than paying for (1) the mind-numbing marathon tests of endurance that have become a sine qua non in education today, and (2) the bureaucracy that benefits from the current arrangement
• How can our legislature allow a system of public schools to exist in North Carolina that will potentially have tremendous differences in the amount and quality of the educational opportunities they offer their students? We cannot allow the North Carolina public school system to become a “tiered system” with wealthy communities able to offer their children significantly better educational opportunities than is possible in less affluent areas. Students in Haywood, Swain, Jackson, Pender, or Onslow County deserve the same quality education that students in Wake, Guilford, or Mecklenburg County receive, so bright, hard-working students anywhere have a genuinely equal chance of attending one of our state’s universities, and then pursuing their desired career paths.
• If the money generated by “The Education Lottery” is not going to be used specifically and consistently for the purpose of funding a first-rate educational system for all students in our state, how about introducing a bill to rename it something catchy like “The Governor’s Mad Money Lottery?” But no matter what, the state needs to stop engaging in “bait and switch” tactics by calling the lottery an “education lottery” and then using the money for anything but education in hard times.
• Finally, how about the issue that no politician seems to want to deal with: increasing state revenues? Politicians do not even want to use the “T word” because doing so could be political suicide. No one wants higher taxes — and maybe now is not the time to consider increases in certain kinds of taxes — but adding 25 cents to the cost of a beer, for example, will hardly cause beer producers and distributors to become destitute or ruin our state economy. That act alone would generate significant additional tax revenue, and a few more “sin taxes” could offset even more of our budgetary imbalance. At least the most recent House budget proposal does include some tax revenue hikes, though not enough to stem the negative effects of the education cuts.
If our legislators honestly believe that the only way to balance the budget, without raising additional revenue, is to make these onerous cuts that will make ours an inequitable, second-rate state educational system, then it is time for them to stop dodging their responsibility and to do what’s necessary. It’s a cliché to say, “You get what you pay for.” But it’s true. If we, the people of North Carolina, want a first-rate education system for all of our children — one that will attract industry, one that will prepare our children for the challenges ahead, one that will place our students on a relatively level playing field with other students in America and throughout the world — then we will have to pay for it. It’s as simple as that. And cutting the school year by 10 days, eliminating more than 6,000 teaching positions, calling a halt to staff development funding for two years, and trying to excuse such actions as necessary in the short-term interest of balancing a budget is, to use another cliché, “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
These are very difficult economic times, but times like these do not diminish the importance of education. If anything, the difficult times we face make it more important than ever that our children become even better prepared to deal with the increasing challenges and economic uncertainties they will face as adults. In times like these, in fact, a “sound basic education” becomes much more than a minimal set of 20th century “survival skills,” and our state government has a duty to provide our children — all of our children — with equal educational opportunities, regardless of community size, wealth, or other arbitrary differences.
In my mind, it all comes down to one simple question: “Do we the people of North Carolina value education enough to be willing to do what is necessary to see that all of our children receive the “sound basic education” that our times, and the N.C. Constitution, require?” If we do, then we must communicate our feelings to our elected representatives. Our region is very fortunate to have outstanding representatives working for us in Raleigh, but these folks have to know we have their backs if they are to go up against entrenched and well organized groups that may not share our concerns. On the other hand, if we do not value education and our children’s future enough to find ways to pay for a first-rate system, then we need do nothing, and the system will collapse around us soon enough. I urge you to get active and make a difference.