This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
Steve Stone is less than pleased with education developments coming out of Raleigh this legislative season.
Stone, the Caldwell County Schools superintendent, said neither Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget nor the slew of legislation drafted by the General Assembly this season represent a stance he’d call pro-education.
“The governor’s budget is interesting, at best,” Stone said. “It is not an education budget. Contrary to what the governor calls it, it is really not a pro-education budget.”
Taken together, Stone believes the governor’s budget and legislation proposed by the General Assembly represent a concerted effort to make public education less appealing to the parents of school-aged children, he said. He believes it’s not a case of misplaced priorities but an attempt to set up a two-tiered system of public education – with well-to-do kids in charter or private schools, and the rest in public schools.
“I don’t think it’s misguided,” he said. “I think it’s directly, a direct misleading of the public about how the public schools are performing, so they can create two public school systems: one for the haves, one for the have-nots.”
One type of school in Stone’s “haves” column: charter schools. Charters are independent but publicly funded schools that are allowed more freedom than traditional public schools. Proponents say these more loosely governed schools allow for greater innovation.
The state Senate Education Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would loosen rules for charter schools in North Carolina. The bill would drop a requirement that at least 50 percent of teachers in those schools hold teaching certificates. It would also increase the state Board of Education vote needed to reject a new charter school to a three-fourths vote.
Stone contends the bill would gives more power to schools that already “don’t play by the rules” that traditional public schools must.
“If the public were really concerned about public dollars, they really should be concerned about charter schools, because they have no public accountability,” he said.
There are currently 107 charter schools in the state. No charters currently operate in Caldwell County, and no applications have been filed.
McCrory’s budget includes funds to add 1,800 teachers over two years, but Stone said that would do little more than keep up with projected growth in North Carolina.
“It’s an understanding that North Carolina is growing and is going to need that many more teachers,” he said. “So it’s really not helping to reduce class size, which is unfortunate. I think it’s really just a recognition that the school-age population continues to grow.”
The McCrory budget also would provide 1 percent pay raise for teachers and other state employees. In 2012, teachers received a 1.2 percent pay increase, but in the four years prior, they received no pay increase.
Stone said though he commends the pay increase, it isn’t enough in light of other cuts to education.
McCrory also would cut funding for teacher assistants in all but kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. There currently are teacher assistants in kindergarten, first, second and third grades.
Stone said the cut would eliminate individual instruction for second- and third-graders.
“I think he’s hung up on this idea that they (teacher assistants) put up bulletin boards,” he said. “In Caldwell County and in most places in North Carolina, teacher assistants are doing daily instruction.”
Caldwell County schools employ 208 state- and locally-funded teacher assistants. There’s no way to project how many are assigned to grades two and three, Stone said.
Stone is assuaged by school-related spending in the state’s response to last fall’s school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
McCrory announced on March 19 the creation of the N.C. Center for Safer Schools, a division of the Division of Juvenile Justice. The center will work to provide information on school safety across the state, according to a press release from the governor’s office.That information will come in the way of a website, toll-free phone number, and community and school presentations, according to the release.
And lawmakers in the House have referred to the bipartisan, $34 million School Safety Act as the most comprehensive bill of its kind in the nation. The bill would provide $20 million in matching grants to help schools hire school resource officers, $5 million for school psychologists, social workers and guidance officers, and $ 4 million to equip every classroom in the state with an alarm system by 2015.
Stone said he was glad to see provisions for school safety, but he thinks lawmakers are using it to distract from cuts to other areas.
“I hope it’s comprehensive,” he said. “I think it’s more PR for them than anything. There are cuts to public education. They’re trying to kind of soft-pedal it by, ‘Oh, look what else we’re doing.’”
There are pieces of legislation, and elements of the governor’s budget, that Stone commends.
He extends particular praise to McCrory’s commitment to pre-kindergarten education, and his earmarking of $52 million for the Smart Start program.
“I think this really speaks volumes about the governor’s budget – that he understands the importance of Pre-K education,” Stone said. “So I really do applaud that.”
Stone is also pleased about continued implementation of the Excellent Public Schools Act, which will provide $28 million in funding for summer reading camps and parent reading plans.
And he likes McCrory’s emphasis on digital learning. (The governor’s budget provides $43 million for tablet funding and online instruction.)
Ultimately, though, Stone said he believes Raleigh is providing less money and less autonomy for public schools.
That along with pay at historically low levels – North Carolina now ranks 46th in teacher pay – could be turning away teachers, he said.
“Why would somebody want to teach here, other than for the love of children?” he asked.