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Needing consent of the governed for a full education agenda

A full-color, 8-1/2 by 11-inch campaign flyer arrived in my mailbox the other day from a Republican state legislator who really wants constituents to know he voted to raise teachers’ pay. The message is repeated front and back.

A few days later, a TV station ran back-to-back nearly identical campaign commercials for two Republican legislators. Same words, same pictures, same message: Teachers got a pay raise.

See how Republicans run. In 2016, from Gov. Pat McCrory to a few GOP legislators in competitive districts, Republicans are running on their two pay-raise votes over the past two years — and on their tax cuts.

Incumbents, of course, have the advantage, and the burden, of running on their records. In this campaign, Republicans do not go out of their way to remind voters about the vast changes in public education policy since winning control of the General Assembly in 2010. Here are some major budget and policy decisions Republicans made that have expanded, and intensified, the great debate in North Carolina over preK-12 education:

  • The Read to Achieve program mandates that schools bring third graders up to grade level in reading, or students must repeat the grade. There is a wide consensus that reading by third grade makes sense. At first the legislation mandated a burdensome battery of tests, which lawmakers subsequently modified. The legislature also has offered bonuses to third-grade teachers, but not to kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers whose work contributes to hitting the third-grade standard.
  • The legislature has also instituted a scheme to grade public schools A through F. Instead of giving parents in-depth information about the quality of teachers and factors not detected by standardized tests, the grades tell more about the student composition of a school. Most A and B schools have a high concentration of children from affluent families; most D and F schools have clusters of children who live in poverty or near-poverty.
  • Publicly funded charter schools pre-date the Republican majority, but GOP lawmakers lifted the 100-limit on the number of charters. Now the state has 167 charter schools with an increase to 180 expected in 2017-18, thus opening more slots for students to depart traditional public schools. It turns out that charter schools, in aggregate, have A and B, as well as D and F, schools, much like traditional public schools. And there is evidence that charter schools have contributed to further racial and socio-economic segregation. Eight charter schools, which receive public money, have reported having no low-income students last year. The Public School Forum describes 45 percent of North Carolina charters as “schools of privilege,’’ with enrollment of low income students at 25 percent or below.
  • The Republican majority instituted state-funded vouchers for students who attend private schools, including schools run by religious institutions. The vouchers are called opportunity scholarship for children of relatively low-income households. The legislature has not required the kind of reporting of data that would enable an assessment of whether voucher-funded students get a sound basic education as required by North Carolina law.
  • The legislature enacted, and McCrory signed, legislation to abolish the career-status system for teachers, popularly known as “tenure.” The courts said career status could not be taken away from teachers who had earned it.
  • Republican lawmakers removed all state funding, thus abolishing, the widely-hailed Teaching Fellows Program that offered college scholarships to young adults who promised to spend four years or more in the classroom.

The list of initiatives goes on: A robust plan to expand digital technology in schools, a mandate to the University of North Carolina to create eight “laboratory’’ schools near campuses, an effort to retreat from the Common Core, meager raises for principals with so many schools in need of strong leadership, and running in place on preK. There is much for Democrats and Republicans to debate, as they should.

But the debate ought to be about more than the pay raises, and whether “the average teacher will make more than $50,000,” as the Republican legislator’s flyer asserts. To look at the GOP initiatives since 2010 is to see a breath-taking array of measures that distinctly shift state education policy — that turn toward more parental choice and steer away from decades of step-by-step enhancements to public education.

Elections are about issues and about candidates’ character and ability to govern. Elections are also about candidates seeking consent from the electorate. The 2016 elections ought to allow voters to decide whether to consent to the full agenda pursued by Republicans over the past five years, or to consent to a new agenda defined by Democrat Roy Cooper and Democratic legislators to take the state in another direction.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.