The canary in the school privatization coal mine

By Chris Fitzsimon - N.C. Policy Watch

At one elementary school in the North Carolina mountains two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

That would make you think that the school would not fare well on the state’s A-F grading system where poverty seems a reliable predictor of the arbitrary grade—97 percent of schools receiving a D or F have more than 50 percent of their students who are from low-income families.

But thanks to the efforts of teachers and parents and the community, the rural school managed a C grade in the latest state report card rankings and did even better as far as the N.C. Arts Council is concerned, earning an A+ for art-based education reform.

Clearly something is working at this low-income school, Central Elementary in Waynesville, but not for long.

The Haywood County School Board voted Monday night to close the school thanks to state budget cuts and the opening of a local charter school that has siphoned students and almost a million dollars in state funding from the local system.

The Smoky Mountain News reports that the board voted to close the school over the objections of roughly 100 parents and community members who showed up at the meeting and at a rally beforehand to urge the board to keep the school open for at least another year.

The board refused, citing the overall budget struggles of the county system thanks to inadequate funding from Raleigh.

The paper reported that School Board member Jimmy Rogers joined the rally and directly blamed the budget cuts and the new charter school for Central’s demise. The charter, Shining Rock Classical Academy, is part of a network of charters with ties to the Challenge Foundation, a group funded by a wealthy school privatization advocate in Oregon.

Rogers called Central Elementary a canary in the coal mine, a phrase also used by a public school teacher in neighboring Macon County to describe what’s happening—and it fits.

Local legislators Rep. Michele Presnell and Sen. Jim Davis have told the local media that it’s not their fault the school is closing and instead claim that local school officials are to blame.

But local school officials didn’t slash funding for teacher assistants, textbooks, and other classroom supports. And they didn’t decide to spend less state funding per pupil.

And they sure didn’t push to open a charter school down the road to directly compete with Central that is not required to provide transportation and lunch for its students or take all students that apply regardless of their needs.

Ironically, the local paper published a story the day after the board’s decision highlighting the plight of the more than 300 homeless children in Haywood County schools. Probably not many of them attend Shining Rock Academy.

Central supporters vow to take their fight to Raleigh and they should but it seems like a long shot.

Most likely Central Elementary will close and the parents of the 250 students who are learning there this year will be reassigned and the community will lose a vital resource, a place where one parent said “…students from the whole socio-economic spectrum learn from the dedicated teachers and from and with one another.”

The proponents of the school privatization always claim that it’s all about parental choice and that competition is good.

But this is not a failing school that is closing, it’s one where students are doing ok despite the hurdles they face. And it is a school that parents and the community work hard to support.

That apparently doesn’t matter in this new age of budget cuts and privatization cloaked as “choice” and reform.

A public school where kids are learning is closing because lawmakers refuse to adequately fund it and an ideological out of state charter operator has come to town.

Unless things change in Raleigh soon, Central will not be the last successful school forced to close as the privatization and dismantling of public education continues.

A canary in the coal mine indeed.

Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch

By Chris Fitzsimon

N.C. Policy Watch

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