The NC Council of Churches aims to exert a positive influence on public policies that have implications for what is commonly known as social justice. What this often boils down to is spotlighting areas of decision-making in which the interests of ordinary residents – people hoping to live healthy, productive, fulfilling lives, sometimes against the odds – hang in the balance.
At this moment in North Carolina’s history, could there be any such area more important than the state’s commitment to its public schools, its community colleges, its public universities?
To ask the question is to answer it. And in that spirit, when the Council on June 16 hosted its every-other-year Critical Issues Seminar, the focus was on public education at all levels – an enterprise that’s critical to the well-being of individuals and communities alike.
Many alarms were sounded. While thousands of dedicated professionals continue to staff our school systems and campuses, North Carolina’s investments in education are failing to keep pace with those of its peers. Even though public school students have continued to show academic gains as standards have steadily been raised, the state’s teacher corps is eroding in the face of lagging salaries and challenges to teachers’ professional status.
The state’s rural counties, where poverty signals a skimpy property tax base, cannot raise enough money locally to compensate for state funding formulas that fail to meet their needs.
Our populous urban school systems struggle, or in some cases no longer struggle, to avoid backsliding into a 21st century version of discredited “separate but equal” schools that never did give children from minority families – many of them poor – an equal chance at academic success.
Higher education faces the strain of relentless budget-cutting that has shifted financial burdens toward students and families, making it harder for young people and others to expand their horizons.
For all that, the Seminar also showcased the optimism that impels many people of faith to believe they can make a difference on behalf of their neighbors – neighbors who look to effective public schools, well-equipped community colleges and affordable, accessible universities as their best hopes for brighter futures. It’s a safe bet that the close to 250 attendees went home with a deeper understanding of what’s at stake as the future of public education in North Carolina unfolds.
All those ‘rooms’
The Seminar at United Church of Chapel Hill began with a worship service led by Hope Morgan Ward, bishop of the North Carolina Conference, United Methodist Church. The conference is one of the 25 denominational groups representing more than one million individual congregants that make up the Council of Churches.
Ward took as her text the well-known passage in John’s Gospel in which Jesus, anticipating his death, tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, which has many rooms.
The passage is often read at funerals as an assurance that the departed is in a better place. Ward offered a broader interpretation, casting it also as Jesus’ promise of abundant life in the here and now. Since education is key to that abundance, she described a duty rooted in religious belief to make sure that everyone can get the education needed to thrive.
The service was followed by a keynote speech delivered by Mike Ward, North Carolina’s elected superintendent of public instruction from 1997 to 2004 and Hope Ward’s spouse.
Ward recapped the era during the latter part of the 20th century when North Carolina shed its standing as a public school backwater. Led by governors and legislators who understood the link between strong schools and a strong economy, the state ratcheted up its investment and saw corresponding gains in academic performance – better test scores, better graduation rates.
However, the strains of the recent recession and a philosophical shift toward smaller government have taken their toll. Among signs of trouble, Ward highlighted national rankings that have given North Carolina an unaccustomed and uncomfortable black eye: 46th in average teacher pay, 48th in per capita school spending.
Pretty good, but imperiled
Without more investment, Ward suggested, schools that might have been judged pretty good won’t be good enough to give young people the knowledge and skills they need to get ahead in a fast-paced global economy. The dangers are compounded by rising costs to families that threaten to push higher education – long one of North Carolina’s priorities and an economic cornerstone — out of reach for many students, forcing them aside in the competition for good careers.
School systems must be allowed to move toward more rigorous courses of instruction, Ward said, endorsing the national Common Core standards that the General Assembly is now determined to jettison.
At the same time, he said, North Carolina must act to reverse trends that are driving teachers to move elsewhere or leave the profession. The state is becoming “First in Teacher Flight,” Ward quipped.
That’s no wonder, when in recent years we’ve seen the nation’s most dramatic erosion in teacher salaries. The legislature now resolves to give teachers some long-overdue pay relief, but it remains sharply divided on how to go about it. Proposed taxpayer funding, in the form of vouchers, for private schools rubs salt in the wounds.
Ward’s admonition to the Council of Churches and its allies: “Counter all the bad-mouthing about public schools and advocate for their needs.” It’s hardly a stretch to say that the hopes and dreams of countless young people and their families, now and in the years to come, hinge on the success of that advocacy.
The Seminar’s morning plenary session, held in United Church’s sunlit sanctuary, concluded with a roundtable discussion among three leading education officials: Rebecca Garland, deputy state superintendent of public instruction, Scott Ralls, president of the NC Community College System, and Drew Moretz, the University of North Carolina System’s vice president for government relations. They hammered a consistent theme: Without ample public support for education at all three levels, the state’s economic health is at risk.
Employers are drawn to the state by a well-prepared workforce, and that preparation requires skilled teachers hewing to consistent, rigorous standards. In the community colleges, it calls for better pay for instructors, who continue to endure some of the lowest salaries anywhere in the country despite the high regard in which North Carolina’s colleges are held.
Progress is being made in smoothing the path from high school into higher education, the officials said, with better coordination allowing more students to take advantage of lower-cost community college courses before transferring to a university campus. Still, affordability is a constant challenge in the face of tuition increases as campuses scratch for money to sustain their programs.
The social justice dimension was highlighted in response a question posed to the panelists by George Reed, the Council’s executive director: What can churches do to help?
Advocate for poor children, was Garland’s response. Help them come to school not so far behind, as many of them do, so they’re not fighting to catch up.
Ralls had a similar take. He urged churches to keep up their efforts to help people overcome the disadvantages of poverty that can make success in school so much harder to achieve and that can make post-secondary education – indispensible for many if not most careers – impossible to afford. Moretz urged church-goers to help spread the word as to how the state’s public universities have improved people’s lives.
These comments went to the heart of why the Council of Churches selected public education as its seminar focus. If each and every member of society is to have a fair chance at realizing his or her full, God-given potential, putting talents to productive and satisfying use, education is indeed critical. For state policy-makers to be good stewards of our educational ventures thus makes for stronger communities even while it honors people’s worth as individuals, firmly in line with the Christian view that no one should deliberately be left to languish in poverty and hopelessness.
Drilling on down
The Seminar’s afternoon schedule featured 13 topical workshops, held in two simultaneous segments. The topics were rich and the presenters were as well-prepared as they were well-informed. Here are some highlights.
- The Voucher Controversy. Presenters: Jane Wettach, clinical professor of law and director, Children’s Law Clinic, Duke University; Chris Fitzsimon, director, N.C. Policy Watch. The state is offering $4,200-a-year “opportunity scholarships” to fund private school costs incurred by lower-income families. Scholarship recipients will be chosen by lottery. Not only will the program divert money from public schools, but it also fails to require private schools to meet educational standards in exchange for benefitting from public support. Vouchers can be used for home schools or overtly religious schools. Lawsuits are pending that challenge the program on constitutional grounds. Whether or not those suits succeed, presenters said, North Carolinians should demand that private schools enrolling voucher recipients be held accountable with regard to their teachers’ qualifications, their curriculums and their results.
- Students At Risk of Failure. Presenters: Angella Dunston, former director, Education and Law Project, N.C. Justice Center; Gene Nichol, law professor and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, UNC-Chapel Hill. Poverty is the single biggest drag on students’ academic performance and is a chronic problem in the United States, where the share of children in poverty is the highest among 14 Western democracies. North Carolina has many communities where poverty takes its toll on young people’s fitness to learn. Brain development can be stunted by poor nutrition and lack of sleep. Homes where parents struggle to put food on the table may yield children without the basic skills to succeed in the classroom, especially if they lose out on pre-kindergarten. As kids grow older, parents then may be too hard-pressed to give them the educational support they need. Lifting children out of poverty is the single most powerful strategy to help them do better in school.
- Diversity in the Schools: Race and Class. Presenters: Bill McNeal, former superintendent, Wake County schools, former executive director, NC Association of School Administrators; Tom Tate, member, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, pastor, Plaza Presbyterian Church, Charlotte. After decades when the state’s two largest school systems were leaders in keeping schools relatively diverse in their socioeconomic makeup, they have been rocked by forces pushing them down the road toward resegregation along lines of race and class. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg system has largely stopped trying to prevent that resegregation, as Tate lamented. In Wake, the effort continues, although the politics are volatile. McNeal said the overriding goal must be to prevent schools from becoming overwhelmed by poverty – which, as we’ve seen, can crush academic hopes. The notion that poverty-ridden schools can be propped up by additional funding is a mirage because the funding, if it’s supplied at all, tends to evaporate. School assignments must be aimed not at getting a broader mix of students purely for diversity’s sake, but at getting a mix that gives all students, no matter where they live, the greatest chance to succeed. Wake coupled its diversity-oriented assignment policies to ambitious, and largely successful, performance goals.
- School Systems Rich and Poor. Presenter: Gerry Hancock, counsel, Low Wealth Schools Consortium, former state senator from Durham County. The 20-year-old Leandro lawsuit has established that under the state constitution, public school students are entitled to an equal opportunity to obtain a “sound basic education.” Some students in low-wealth school systems – ones with small property tax bases and meager ability to raise local revenue – are by that standard being shortchanged. It remains for judges and legislators to determine what to do about that, beyond shoring up pre-K education so that students are prepared to take advantage of school when it starts. North Carolina funds a higher share of public school expenses than many other states do – a mark in its favor. But overall spending levels are way below par, and local funding is essential. The gulf between the property values our affluent counties can tap to raise money for schools and what their low-wealth counterparts can tap is huge. The state must do more to equalize that difference if schools everywhere are to gain the resources they need – well-qualified teachers, books, technology, decent facilities – and give all students the opportunities they deserve.
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The Seminar wrapped up with a brief closing worship service led by the Revs. Rick and Jill Edens, pastors of United Church. It included an affirmation of the precious work being done by our state’s educational personnel in all their roles. For that work they deserve our respect and gratitude – and, for our teachers especially, pay that recognizes their professionalism and the value of what they do.
People of faith and all North Carolinians who take seriously the notion of our shared responsibilities toward one another can see, reflecting on the Seminar, that public education truly is a “critical issue” – the sturdy ladder we must extend so that those who come after us may prosper and live life abundantly.