Former President Reagan once said, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!” Our federal budget reveals as much, routinely providing a laundry list of more than a few programs on the fast track to “immortality.”
When it comes to government expansion, few programs match public education. Even in our own state, the education bureaucracy has ballooned to unprecedented proportions. And there is little appetite among legislators to reverse course. One has only to listen in on the debate currently raging about deconsolidation in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School System (CMS) to grasp the vigorous opposition to downsizing. But with over 115,000 students, CMS is clearly a bureaucratic giant. And many parents and students think the system has become too big to meet their needs.
Frustrated Charlotte residents quickly learned that there was no policy or state law on the books allowing a North Carolina system to decrease in size. No surprise here: the trend over the last 50 years has been to get bigger. Acting to change this legislative gap, residents made numerous phone calls to Representatives Gulley and Rhodes (both from Mecklenburg County), prompting their sponsorship of House Bill 1017, the Mecklenburg Education Freedom Act.
This bill called for a referendum in the November election to allow Mecklenburg County residents to determine if deconsolidation would be the best course of action. Having a referendum would provide for research review and dialogue, and would allow for a deconsolidation process. At the time, Speaker Black favored bringing the bill up in the Joint Education Committee, and killing it quickly. However, he too began to feel the weight of public pressure, and suddenly the bill had life again, with a 40-minute public committee hearing planned for the bill.
All of this brings us to last week, when the committee hearing was held. Only residents of Mecklenburg County (not elected officials) were allowed to speak. As a former elected official and current resident of Mecklenburg County, I was able to share valid research pointing to the clear benefits of smaller school districts on student performance. In fact, a recent study from the Manhattan Institute (available on the NCEA homepage) found that decreasing the size of school districts has a positive, substantial and statistically significant, effect on graduation rates.
Citizens asked for a study committee to look at research, particularly since Mecklenburg County is not known for its superb academic performance and financial efficiency.
Unfortunately, when the vote was taken, the bill died again in the House. As with most politically charged issues, legislators came into the debate already knowing how they would vote. Research detailing the negative relationship between district consolidation and student achievement did nothing to sway their entrenched views. Clearly, these people did not want to be confused by the facts.
Situations like this underscore our need for a major overhaul in K-12 education. Parents and taxpayers are tired of seeing children used as game pieces in the hands of politicians. Rather than advancing the scope and reach of government, we ought to be empowering parents, providing them with the necessary resources to make educational choices for their children. In the “eternal” scheme of things, children’s lives, not the expansion of government programs, matter most.
To learn more about issues like deconsolidation, as well as the latest education news, visit the Alliance online at www.nceducationalliance.org. Check out the “Headlines” section of our home page, updated daily with articles from every major newspaper in the state. At the Alliance, we are committed to keeping you informed and empowered as we join together to improve education for the children of North Carolina.