Long after this session of the General Assembly has adjourned it will be remembered for more than just the specter of discrimination that hung over the proceedings thanks to the sweeping anti-LGBT law HB2 that was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory a month before the session began, creating a backlash across the country against North Carolina.
It is likely to also go down in history as the year that the push to dismantle traditional public schools reached dangerous new levels as anti-public education ideologues and privatization profiteers worked in tandem again to divert more resources from public education to out of state companies and completely unaccountable private schools and religious academies.
The House recently passed legislation that would allow low-performing schools to be put in something called an achievement school district that could be turned over to an out-of-state for profit charter school company to manage.
The controversial plan has failed in other states, most notably Tennessee, but that didn’t stop the House from approving it after heavy lobbying from a right-wing education group based in Oklahoma and anti-public school forces inside North Carolina.
And the vote came despite opponents of the plan pointing out that state efforts to turn around struggling schools have been promising in the 79 districts where transformation teams have been involved.
The problem is that more than 500 schools have designated as low-performing and the General Assembly has not provided enough funding for state education officials to help all of them.
Now the same legislators would apparently rather give money to private companies as part of a plan that has failed elsewhere than fully fund in-state efforts to help students who are struggling.
Then there is the voucher scheme. The Senate budget includes a massive expansion of the program that diverts public money to private schools with virtually no accountability measures in place to monitor how the money is spent or what the children learn at the voucher schools.
The Senate wants to spend $170 million on vouchers over the next five years. More than 90 percent of the taxpayer money currently spent on vouchers goes to religious schools, many of which use fundamentalist textbooks and curricula that teach students bizarre things, including that dinosaurs and humans co-existed on earth and that slaves were treated well.
Many voucher schools also openly discriminate against gay students and there are almost no strings attached to the public money they receive. The dramatic increase in voucher funding in the Senate budget comes as new research from the Brookings Institution finds that students using vouchers to attend private schools scored lower on reading and math tests that their counterparts in public schools.
That didn’t slow down Senate leaders at all. They are committed to siphoning funds from the public schools regardless of how the money is spent or what results are achieved.
Any alternative to public education is worth supporting as part of their crusade and nowhere is that clearer than in lawmakers’ support of virtual charter schools that are also run by out of state for profit companies.
There is little evidence that virtual charters improve student achievement and there’s plenty of evidence that they don’t, including a study funded by pro-charter forces that found that virtual charter students’ lack of academic progress in math was the same as if students had not been enrolled in school at all.
Virtual charters in other states have been plagued not only by questionable academic progress, but high student and teacher turnover and even outright fraud, with companies cooking the books to get public money for students who were no longer enrolled.
The two virtual charters that began in North Carolina this year have also struggled with high dropout rates so lawmakers are responding by changing the law to not count students who withdrew in the first month of the year as a dropout. They are also considering lowering the percentage of teachers required to live in North Carolina.
Anything to make it easier for the troubled virtual charter school companies to make their money, never mind the students.
There’s also legislation to increase funding for charter schools across the state at the expense of traditional public schools, even though the state’s record for holding charters accountable is spotty at best and the fact that per pupil spending on education remains well below where it was before the recession in the last decade.
Add it all up and it’s impossible not to see a theme. The folks currently running things in Raleigh are willing to use taxpayer dollars for almost any scheme—vouchers, achievement school districts, virtual charters—that diverts resources from the traditional public schools they refuse to adequately support.
Even the Senate’s election year raise for teachers is partially paid for by cuts in other funding for public education
Each individual attack on public schools is troubling enough and garners some coverage by the media though most accounts don’t consider the big picture and take all the assaults on public education together as whole.
But they are all part of a larger plan to dismantle the current system of public schools in North Carolina and let the religious ideologues and the private for profit companies divide the spoils.
Unless things change dramatically soon, that’s likely to be one of the most troubling and enduring legacies of the current General Assembly, the rush to tear down one of the most important institutions in our state.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch.