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Perspective | How voices, budgets, and public opinion shape issues in election years

“For too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools,” said President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address, inserting his voice into the debate about K-12 schools in this already polarized election year.

In North Carolina campaigns, as well as nationally, a consequential choice looms between bolstering public schools or widening exit ramps to other schools.

During the address, President Trump pointed to a Philadelphia fourth-grader he had invited to the U.S. House gallery. He promised her a scholarship to attend the school of her choice. But in fact, as the Philadelphia Inquirer subsequently reported, the young girl had already transferred from a Christian school to a “most sought-after’’ public charter school that doesn’t charge tuition.

Last week, the Trump administration released its proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, inserting his policy priorities into the debate over K-12 schools. While it adds $900 million to career and technical education, the Trump budget would consolidate Title I assistance to high-poverty schools, dollars for new charter schools, and more than two dozen other programs into a block grant to the states — cutting overall federal education spending by 7.8% from $72.8 billion to $66.6 billion. At the same time, the Trump budget proposes $1 billion in 2021 and $5 billion in the following years for a tax-credit plan that would produce scholarships to students in private schools.

With Democrats holding a House majority, the Trump budget has no chance of adoption.

The political and policy divide reflects a pull-and-tug within public opinion. In a nationwide survey published in its winter 2020 edition, Education Next, a journal sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School, observes “signs of partisan polarization.”

“On one side,” Education Next reports, “Republicans are as committed as ever to charter schools … with 61% of Republicans backing charters while opposition remains at 27%.” Under President Obama, a large plurality of Democrats backed charters, but now, says Education Next, “Democrats have backed away from charter schools. … Democrats now oppose charters by a ratio of 48% to 40%.”

Education Next reports that 49% of Americans favor vouchers or tax credits to assist low-income students to attend private-schools. At the same time, in keeping with a long-running trend of a split in perceptions, Americans give a high grade — 60% say an A or B — to their local public schools, while only 24% give the same grades to the nation’s schools. Notably, it reports, “support for teacher pay hikes is now higher than at any point since 2008.”

At the root of the current divide is the historic tension in American life between individual rights and community responsibility. The call for “parental choice’’ resonates with the attachment to home and family. But individuals and families also require a healthy society to flourish, and public schools have long served among the anchor institutions in communities large and small. The task of policymakers is to strive to manage the tension between individual liberty and the commonwealth, especially since the vast majority of our students attend public schools.

The United States has distinguished itself for its persistent promise of mass education. The nation has long featured a relatively balanced mix of public, private, and parochial schools — and each of those sectors has schools ranging from strong to weak. The state and nation need more strong schools and fewer weak schools. Where there are “failing’’ public schools, it’s the duty of governing authorities to fix them.

For the state or the nation to falter in sustaining public education would run contrary to the nation-building precepts enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States and our own state constitutional obligation as defined by the Leandro case for the opportunity to a sound, basic education.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.