Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Schools need (social) capital

One thing I’ve learned from my North Carolina public school education and my private college experience is to support arguments with data. And in hyperpartisan political times, it’s important to separate facts from fiction.

Let’s be clear: For the most part, our schools are adequately funded.

In the News & Observer’s July 26 editorial, “Public schools still standing tall for NC,” the editorial board all but waged war on conservatives in the General Assembly for lawmakers’ alleged attacks on public education. “Their sight is short; their attitude is disgraceful. And stupid,” the editors said. Strong words that encourage more partisan gridlock without substantively adding to the policy debate.

Gallup Senior Economist Jonathan Rothwell studies educational funding and student performance. In his article, “The declining productivity of education,” Rothwell speaks to the great paradox of our times: Despite spending more per pupil than most other countries in the world, the U.S. still lags behind in literacy and numeracy. For North Carolina, according to a 2016 National Education Association report, the average total education spending per full-time K-12 student works out to about $9,483, ranking us 40th of 50 states while still spending more per pupil than many countries.

With such low levels of education spending, one might think our students perform poorly compared to other states. Not entirely.

On the National Association of Educational Progress Reading and Math Assessments administered every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders, North Carolina students do fairly well. In the most recent reports from 2015, which measured proficiency amongst other categories, N.C. fourth-graders were significantly above the national average in both math and reading. Eighth-graders scored average in math and below the national average in reading.

Despite spending slightly below the national average, which is expected given it’s cheaper to live in our state, N.C. students aren’t at a tremendous disadvantage.

Though N.C. students perform well, there is always room for improvement. In some instances, this may require more funding for schools, teachers, and students. Localities may need to reallocate their budgets to maximize their resources. In other cases, innovation may help. The education system is not and should not take a one-size-fits-all approach. Students and parents deserve options and, yes, the General Assembly has provided those options — including the Opportunity Scholarship Program and an expansion of charter schools. These have generated “buy-in” from parents and students alike.

And that’s really where the focus should be now, increasing the “buy-in” the social capital, in our communities and our schools. It’s unrealistic to expect teachers to act as both teachers and parents to students. Better classroom performance will come when parents tell students to put down the cell phone, crack open a book, and pursue topics that pique their interests. It also will result when parents ask questions, get involved, and know the needs of their child and their child’s teacher. Education cannot be an endeavor that ends where the school parking lot begins.

Despite the narrative that our schools are grossly underfunded and students are suffering, data indicate otherwise. Yes, some students still struggle. Policy work still remains. And teacher pay is still a priority of this General Assembly, which is committed to raising pay by an average of 9.6 percent over the next two years.

Leaders like Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, and House Speaker Tim Moore are working to improve education in our state, all while delicately balancing the interests of many stakeholders. We can continue to increase funding to our schools, but sound education policy also requires investment in other forms, not just dollars.

Blake Brewer is the 2017-18 Blundell Fellow at the John William Pope Foundation.