A Race Against Time to Save Public Education

Renee Sekel

Renee Sekel

Renee Sekel

I never intended to become an education advocate. If you’d asked me a few years ago what my top issues were, education wouldn’t have cracked the top five. My kids all attend North Carolina public schools, and while I had a vague sense that our schools were underfunded, I took for granted that public education is a fact of American life and would always be so.

That began to change in 2017, when by chance a friend asked me to substitute for her at a meeting with our school board representative. At that meeting, our BOE member talked about a new law, ostensibly meant to reduce class sizes, but that also eliminated state funding for art, music and P.E. teachers in elementary schools. I can still recall how shocked I was. This couldn’t really be true, could it? But as I began to do the research, I discovered that not only was the law indeed on the books but that this major policy change had been slipped into the North Carolina 2016 budget, which meant that it never got a hearing.  

At first I thought that the measure reflected incompetence. After all, legislators claimed that the law’s side effects were a mistake. After the House unanimously passed a bill that would fix the problem, but the Senate failed to even consider it, I sprang into action. I told the PTA at my kids’ elementary school about the law, and we started asking families to contact their legislators. But as parent after parent reported back that their calls and emails were being ignored or dismissed, I began to realize that something else was happening. I’d started my education advocacy journey naively ill-informed about the politics of my state but I was waking up to an unpleasant reality. Our legislative leaders were deeply hostile to our public schools. 

The “class size” law was only the start. Indeed, well before I’d been paying meaningful attention the GOP had begun targeting our schools and teachers for an endless series of “reforms.” They lifted the cap on charter schools, gutted the state’s acclaimed teacher training program, fired 8,000 teaching assistants, made teachers pay more health insurance, and took away health insurance for retired teachers. Then there is our voucher program, which grows year after year with no meaningful oversight at all. And even as lawmakers expand unregulated school choice programs, they heap new regulations on our public schools. 

This year they’re setting up censorship committees in every school district. Should the budget pass, every school system will be required to list online every resource, including books, worksheets, and assignments used by the school. Any member of the pubic can then petition to have materials removed from the schools on the grounds that it is “unfit.” A media advisory committee then has two weeks to hold a hearing in they can either vote to get rid of the “offensive” material or have it appealed automatically to a state-level committee. 

Four years ago, both Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina at least made a show of claiming to support public education, even as the legislature slashed budgets and passed one policy after another aimed at undermining public schools. What worries me today is how that rhetoric has shifted. Our Republican leaders now openly acknowledge that they are hostile to public education and would prefer to replace public schools with a voucher system. I know that the vast majority of North Carolinians from all across the political spectrum support public schools, but increasingly it feels like we’re in a race against time, trying to get citizens to understand that our schools are under attack. If it becomes orthodoxy in the GOP that public schools are anathema, and a critical mass is convinced that the schools their children attended−that they attended−should be destroyed, there is no going back.

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Here is our suggested message:

I am a supporter of our neighborhood public schools. Please stop the war on public schools that is being waged in the legislature. Use whatever executive powers you can to slow the expansion of charter schools and vouchers in the state. Thank you. 

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