Progress North Carolina fights to preserve many things that make NC great. But no issue has been more important to us then the battle to save public education in our state. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, the far right has attacked our public schools by ramming through devastating budget cuts and turning our teachers into public villains. In doing so, they have attacked the heart of what makes North Carolina great. Progress NC has responded by fighting back on-the-ground, in the media, online and in the halls of state government. Why do we fight so hard? Here’s why:
Education built modern North Carolina. It allowed us to transition from an agricultural economy to one that now includes some of the most innovative ventures in the world. In doing so, it helped our state escape the poverty that too many other states suffer. Strong public schools and a well-prepared workforce have led to North Carolina consistently ranking at the very top of the best places in America for families and employers alike. Most of all, the breadth of our state’s commitment to education, from Pre-K and Smart Start all the way through to our community colleges and public universities, has proved North Carolina’s willingness to invest in its citizens and to support their right to work hard, be rewarded for that work and shape their own destinies.
Critics of public education say that it is too expensive. They take isolated incidences of failure and attempt to paint the entire public education system as worthless. They talk of expenses and nothing of the benefits. They highlight the problems while ignoring the lessons of the successes. In short, they have wrapped the reality around their beliefs rather than basing their beliefs on the reality. Education is not the single greatest expense of our government — it is the single greatest investment that our government makes. And it provides the greatest, most enduring return of any investment our government makes. Why? Because public education makes America possible. It nurtures the success of the individual and remains essential to keeping the promise of the American dream alive. It is the great equalizer and the only thing left in our society that keeps us from fragmenting into a country of haves and have-nots. Public education lets people born into poverty lift themselves out of that poverty and build a better life for their families. It creates leaders and problem-solvers who keep our state moving forward into the future. In short, it is the last thing on earth we should sacrifice to the “no taxes for any reason” crowd.
When Progress North Carolina decided to take the lead in holding the GOP leaders in the General Assembly responsible for their cuts to education, we suspected we would find support for our position on both sides of the aisle. After all, some of the strongest supporters of public schools in North Carolina have been Republicans and our education system has long been a source of bipartisan pride. But we have been both surprised and gratified to find that protecting public education truly is a nonpartisan issue, important to Democrats, Republicans and Unaffiliateds alike. As we have traveled around the state, holding lawmakers responsible, we have been welcomed by North Carolinians of all stripes and from all economic classes who are willing to join us in our fight to save public education. In a world as politically polarized as ours, it is remarkable to find such common agreement and further proof of public education’s importance to our lives.
Could public education in North Carolina be improved? Absolutely. In many instances, we have adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to its challenges with poor results and we must back off from these failed solutions and acknowledge that, like politics, good education may very well be local. Can we cut costs? Possibly. We can certainly deploy education funding in more strategic ways, putting it where it will do the most good. But we cannot intelligently reform education by cutting its budget first and asking questions later, as the General Assembly did last year. Nor can we reform education intelligently by shutting teachers out of the process and making them the enemy — they are the only ones in a position to know what truly works where it matters the most: on the frontline, where our children sit and learn. And we certainly cannot reform education intelligently if we rely on the advice of those who stand to profit handsomely from the failure of our public schools.
Real reform of our schools will take adopting a far different approach than the one our General Assembly employed last year. It will take better planning, the input of many and it most certainly will take a more open mind on the part of GOP leaders in Raleigh. They must begin by listening to those who work within and who are invested in the success of our public school system, including our state’s renowned educational experts, school superintendents, teachers, families and even students. It can be done. There is room at the table for everyone. But we cannot allow those who do not have a stake in our public schools to drive their reform — and that includes for-profit educational interests who stand to make money off their demise. It is foolish to believe that inviting the fox into the henhouse will yield anything but mayhem in return.
Don’t let our state’s leaders sacrifice public education simply to satisfy the vocal demands of an extremist base unwilling to back any government-financed program. Don’t let them cripple public education so business interests can profit. Don’t let them use fiscal responsibility as an excuse to gut the most important investment in the future that our state makes. Demand that they leave ideology out of the equation. Join Progress North Carolina in asking that our state take a more thoughtful, inclusive approach to saving our public education system.
We have seen the support for our schools on the ground. We know that it is out there. Our hope is that education will become a common ground for all North Carolinians, one that inspires us to work together to turn our public schools into a shining example of a modern system that serves students effectively while respecting those who are charged with their education. North Carolina once led the nation in public education and we can lead it again. We just have to acknowledge how important it is and try.