Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, has some clear ideas about how public education should be reformed in North Carolina, but he is counting on parents from across the state to help redefine public education for the next century.

“The system of public education in North Carolina was developed over 100 years ago and it has served us well,” Torbett told Carolina Journal. “However, if we were creating a new system from scratch, how would we do it? What would we change? What would we keep? This is what we need parents to help us answer so we can meet the educational needs of future generations.”

An engineer by trade Torbett knows how to divide and concur perplexing and complicated challenges.  He has already done so to help modernize the U.S. armed forces. As Vice President of Business Development for Defense Technologies Torbett was key in helping bring to fruition unmanned warfighting efforts that are key in today’s American military.

Torbett is chair of a new state house committee, the House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future, tasked with studying how to design an educational system for North Carolina’s future. Torbett is also is a home builder. He views this educational reform effort as like building a house. Start from scratch, build a strong foundation, focus on getting the basics right and create a design that meets the need of the individual.

“We are having the same fights over and over and we are not making the kind of progress we need to make,” said Torbett. “We need to take the focus away from the system and put it on the parents, teachers and students.”

The nine-member committee met for the first time recently. The committee purposely does not include professional educators.  Torbett told the committee to envision creating an education system if one didn’t already exist in the Tar Heel State.

“What would you do to help create a process to educate children in North Carolina to best be able to accommodate their needs when they exit?” Torbett asked.

Committee members spoke about improving reading levels, preparing students who do not go to college for the working world.

Torbett tells Carolina Journal, the state must examine whether age-based grade levels still make sense.  He believes schools with the right tools can track students’ progress on a weekly if not daily basis to see what students are learning, how they are learning and if they need help. Torbett plans on examining flexible calendar options that parents could choose.

As a freshman state representative Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, brings a unique perspective to the committee. He does not come with the battle scars from past partisan education battles. His profession is commercial construction, and he too looks to that experience in building a new education system that is responsive to individual student needs.

“I think the one great thing that has come out of covid is the attention the education system is now getting as every parent has had to be involved in their child education,” Zenger tells Carolina Journal.  “I would like for us to investigate how we can make the education system responsive to the consumer, the parent. I am interested in seeing how we can make the most options available so that parents can get their kids the best education to prepare them for life. “

“The main objective I would like the committee to address is how we can develop an educational system that works for every child,” Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, tells Carolina Journal. “Keeping in my mind that a one size that fits all system doesn’t work. Before the pandemic, more than 60 % of African American children in our public schools were considered failing or not on grade level. Our current system isn’t working for them. There isn’t a Republican or Democratic answer to these issues. And only by working together will we be able to begin to effectively find a solution.”

“The teacher pipeline is an issue I really would like us to tackle head-on,” said Rep. Brian Farkas, D-Pitt. “How do we really inspire the next generation of such a critical workforce”

The committee will soon hold hearings across the state, giving parents of all perspectives the chance to weigh in and shape the future of education in North Carolina.

As a grassroots coordinator for the John Locke Foundation, Kelly Mann works to engage parents and mobilize them to impact education policy. She says the committee’s public hearings can help answer the growing demand by parents to engage policymakers on what and how their children are taught.

“Covid woke a sleeping giant,” said Mann. “Many parents who before had blind faith in educational institutions are now wanting to directly influence how our children are taught. They want to get politics out of the classroom. They want parent and student-focused education. This committee can meet the needs of parents who want to get involved.”

The committee will meet on Feb. 7 at 1 p.m. and will be hearing from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt and Lt. Governor Mark Robinson.