The real reform that would help low-income students

By Chris Fitzsimon - N.C. Policy Watch

One of the most often cited justifications for the radical education “reforms” in the General Assembly these days is that they will help low-income children who are currently struggling in traditional public schools.

Supporters of the state’s school voucher scheme that diverts taxpayer dollars to almost entirely unaccountable private and religious academies claim that giving low-income kids a $4,200 voucher will allow them to flourish.

Never mind that the best private schools charge four to five times that much for tuition or that there are no academic standards that the voucher schools have to meet.

The authors developing a plan behind the scenes in the General Assembly that would create a new achievement district for low performing elementary schools that could convert the schools to charters run by for profit companies that could fire teachers and administrators at will say it’s all about helping the low-income kids “trapped in failing public schools.”

Some of the unlikely supporters of the plan that is being developed in secret in the backrooms of the Legislative Building say they are interested because of the wrap around support services that may be available in the achievement district to students who need them.

Dismantling public schools is apparently all about helping poor kids and nothing to do with privatization or profit or supporting religious institutions with public tax dollars.

Or is it?

Why aren’t the same people supporting an achievement district to privatize schools publicly demanding the same wrap around services for children now in the public schools? Why do we need to turn public education over to a for-profit operator before we will help the children?

And if the goal is really to help poor kids, then how do the same legislators touting vouchers and working on the achievement district explain their lack of support for low income children and their families in their budgets in recent years?

There’s little doubt left about the benefit of early childhood and pre-K programs. They help at-risk kids be prepared for school and do better when they get there. But the state has fewer kids in NC Pre-K now than were enrolled just a few years ago.

Shouldn’t we fully fund NC PreK to help at-risk kids before we privatize schools with high numbers of at-risk kids because they are not doing well?

Many of the problems low-income children face are a result of the struggles of their parents. Yet in recent years, the General Assembly has ended a the state Earned Income Tax Credit that helps low-wage workers, dramatically reduced unemployment benefits for parents who are laid off, and kicked thousands of children off of child care subsidies that allow their parents to work or gain a skill that makes them more likely to find a job.

Many poor kids also live in families where the parents can’t afford health care. In 30 states, they would qualify for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Not in North Carolina, where legislative leaders refuse to expand Medicaid. They dislike President Obama more than they care about helping families see a doctor when they need to.

The fact that many low-income kids in low-income schools are struggling does not mean they can’t learn. They can. They just face hurdles that children in middle class families don’t have to worry about.

The way to help low-income kids isn’t to blame the school, fire the teachers and let an out of state for profit company come in.

And it’s not to give low-income parents a voucher to use at private schools with no standards and no guarantee that the children will receive the sound basic education the courts have ruled the North Carolina Constitution guarantees them.

The way to help low-income kids is to provide those extra services in their schools now. It’s to make sure they have access to NC PreK and other support programs And it’s to help their parents who are struggling too.

We don’t need voucher schemes or achievement districts. We need an achievement budget that makes the investments that schools and low-incomes families need to succeed. That would be real education reform.

Chris Fitzsimon is the founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch

By Chris Fitzsimon

N.C. Policy Watch

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