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Wednesday, 17 October 2007 00:00

The right too often hides behind the children

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On a political talk show recently, a well-known Republican political consultant spent a lot of time attacking public schools in North Carolina and the people who run them. No surprise there.

Dismantling public education has long been a goal of a segment of the political right who see public education as the last government institution that enjoys broad support among the electorate.

Virtually every poll that asks people to identify the most important issue facing the state finds education at the top of the list. Public approval of tax hikes increases dramatically if the money is raised to improve schools, as the latest Elon University Poll found recently in its survey about a small real estate transfer tax.

Two-thirds of people opposed a transfer tax generally, but when asked if they would support it if the money went to education, supporters of the tax out numbered opponents 49 percent to 42.

People still believe in public schools and the right simply can’t stand it, so they snarl about public education using terms like “government schools” and the “education monopoly,” trying desperately to find a way to erode public support for free, quality education for everybody.

As annoying as that is, there’s nothing unusual about that either. Reframing debates and searching for the right phrase to define a position is a staple of consultants and advocates on all sides these days.

But the other half of the right’s attacks on public education are offensive and border on the dishonest. They use legitimate criticisms of public schools to advocate for their demise and claim it’s all to help children.

It is true that North Carolina schools could be doing a lot better. As the Republican consultant pointed out on the show, only 70 percent of high school students are graduating in four years.

He could have mentioned that the graduation rate for African-American males in high school is roughly 50 percent. He could have cited statistics about the number of low-performing schools, the problems with the standardized testing program, the re-segregation of students (though that’s probably a plus in his book), and a number of other urgent problems facing public education.

He didn’t mention any of those things. Instead he complained about the people who run the schools, suggesting that education administrators don’t care if students succeed or not. It’s a corollary of the usual venom spewed at the “teacher’s union.”

You can argue all day about the role of the North Carolina Association of Educators, but to accuse teachers or education officials of indifference toward students is simply absurd.

The offensive part of this diatribe is that the claims about the concern for children who are struggling in schools are actually motivated by a desire to “de-fund” public education, not help the kids.

If you don’t believe that, then consider who the children are falling the cracks in public schools. They are not middle class white children or kids from wealthy families. For the most part, those children are getting a decent education in public schools.

It is poor kids and children of color who are having the most problems. Those are the very children who are mostly uninsured, yet the anti-public schoolers oppose children’s health care programs in Raleigh and Washington.

Most of the same children live in families struggling to make ends meet, yet the consultant and his candidates oppose anti-poverty initiatives like the Earned Income Tax Credit that even former President Ronald Reagan championed.

The families often live in housing they can’t really afford or housing that is unsafe, and many of the harshest critics of public schools oppose funding of affordable housing initiatives like the Housing Trust Fund.

It’s not the education leaders in North Carolina who are indifferent to the success of children, it’s the zealots who want to use the students’ struggles to dismantle our public schools and serve their reactionary agenda.

(NC Policy Watch Director Chris Fitzsimon wrote this article, which appeared on the NC Policy Watch Web site. NC Policy Watch is an independent project of the NC Justice Center, North Carolina’s leading private, nonprofit anti-poverty organization.)

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