New school year brings the Right’s war on public education into sharp focus

By: - August 27, 2019 5:00 am

There was a time in the United States not that many years ago in which K-12 public education was taken as a given – something as fundamental to the health and wellbeing of society as drinking water and law enforcement and public roads.

It may not have always lived up to this ideal (particularly in places where the great evil of racial discrimination and segregation held sway), but it’s fair to say that the American public school classroom was widely understood to be the glue that brought our broadly middle class society together and moved it into the future, the unifying institution that inculcated the fundamental civic values of democracy, and the place where society combated ignorance and superstition and prepared members of the next generation to build a better world.

Tragically, this began to change in the latter part of the 20th Century. In her powerful 2017 book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean makes a compelling argument that the advent of racial integration – and, in particular, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education) – helped spur a conservative resistance movement that served to undermine the general consensus about public education.

And when this sad development was combined with two other toxic trends – perhaps most notably the aggressive, corporate-sponsored revival of dog-eat-dog, market fundamentalist economics and the explosive growth in what’s-in-it-for-me? American consumerism – it wasn’t long before prominent leaders of the American Right were referring derisively to “government schools” and treating K-12 education as a commodity in which “winners” and “losers” aggressively bargained and shopped for the best deal.  

Now, add to all of this a healthy measure of obliviousness from mostly white male elites that could not and cannot see the amazing advantages they enjoy merely by virtue of their race and gender, and you’ve got a recipe for the situation that confronts North Carolina today – a time in which an entire cohort of children will soon graduate from 12th grade, having experienced nothing but declining public education budgets and a sustained ideologically-driven effort to depopulate public schools.

And while some on the political right continue to insist on paying lip service to the notion that they still support public education, a long litany of ills tells a very different story. Consider the following facts about the education system that students and educators return to this week as they begin the 2019-‘20 school year:

  • Actual state funding for K-12 education is down 6.7 percent (when one adjusts for enrollment growth and inflation) since the 2008-’09 school year – a time when North Carolina ranked 43rd in the nation in terms of per pupil spending and in spending as a share of Gross State Product.
  • Most per student funding allotments are actually down more than 6.7%. For instance, the state has 9% fewer “instructional support personnel” (counselors, nurses, librarians, etc.), 8% fewer principals and assistant principals, 36% less funding for teacher assistants, 57% less for textbooks, 56% less for classroom supplies, and 17% less for non-instructional support like custodians and bus drivers.
  • The state’s mushrooming charter school and voucher programs are contributing to declining public school enrollment, increased racial segregation and a pernicious situation in which children with higher incomes and fewer disabilities are “creamed” away and children with greater challenges disproportionately remain.
  • Despite recent modest improvements for some, North Carolina teachers still earn far less (26.5% less) than their college-educated, private sector peers. Only five states fare worse by this measurement.
  • The state faces a school infrastructure need of at least $8.1 billion.
  • While most states made use of the post-Great Recession recovery to rebuild their public education investments, North Carolina instead enacted a series of aggressive, multi-billion dollar tax cuts that mostly benefited the top 1% and that lowered the state’s overall funding effort (as a share of Gross State Product) to 48th in the nation. Indeed, it would take billions in additional spending just to match spending levels in South Carolina.

And, of course, the rancid icing on top of this spoiled cake is the most recent proposal from Republican legislative leaders (click here and here) to divvy up the state’s modest budget surplus at a rate of $125 per taxpayer. In a fashion that must make perfect sense to the leaders of a group led by a corrupt and megalomaniacal casino owner, the GOP bosses propose to toss off a paltry “tip” to their overworked, underpaid and underserved constituents rather than to seriously address the demise in essential public services and structures (much less the falling wages, lack of health care access and a rapidly declining natural environment) that affect their lives and those of their children.

Let’s hope fervently that North Carolinians sniff out this latest cynical move and the destructive ongoing blitzkrieg it’s meant to help camouflage.     

(Note: This post has been updated to say that North Carolina teachers earn 26.5% less than their college-educated, private sector peers – not 5%, as it originally stated.)  

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.