The following is the unedited version of my editorial, invited by the newspaper, that appeared in the print version of today's Asheville Citizen-Times.
When I was growing up in Hayesville, I took it for granted that my teachers (many of whom were my own relatives) were teaching me what I needed to know and be able to do to go on to college and a career. It never occurred to me that some other children in my state and country may not have enjoyed the high quality of education that I was receiving. I just thought that was what schools did. It was only after I grew up, graduated from Western Carolina University, and entered the teaching and administration force in public schools in Atlanta, and later, Massachusetts and Connecticut, before returning to my home state, that I realized just how mistaken I was.
In the United States today, 58% of African-American 4th grade children test as functionally illiterate. About one-third of all high school students who start ninth grade in this country drop out before graduation. No one can argue that the American public education system serves all students equally. Families who can afford to move to “better” ZIP codes are able to secure excellence for their children in the public schools. Those who cannot afford are held hostage by their local school district, regardless of the level of achievement there. This is a situation that has to change if this country is going to reclaim its position as the foremost nation in the world in educating its citizens.
On June 8, across the country, theaters showed the documentary film The Lottery by Madeleine Sackler. This film demonstrates how hundreds of thousands of American parents, many of them poor and minority, attempt to flee failing traditional public school systems every year. The Lottery follows four families from Harlem and the Bronx who have entered their children in a charter school lottery. The North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools hosted the NC premiere of the documentary in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Asheville.
North Carolina is becoming a battleground for the right of families to choose the best educational option for their children without having to resort to homeschooling or paying for private education. The recent “education reform” legislation passed hastily by the state senate is a thinly veiled attempt by Governor Beverly Perdue for North Carolina to qualify for the second round of Race to the Top grants by the U.S. Department of Education. North Carolina’s application in the first round was passed over, largely because of the cap of 100 charter schools in this state and the open hostility to charter schools by school boards and superintendents.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made it clear that only those states where public school choice, including charter schools, is supported and welcomed will be awarded those funds. Lifting the cap on charter schools is one of the steps that must be taken to qualify. Tennessee, our next-door neighbor, won $400 million for its K-12 schools in the first round. That’s right. Tennessee.
At a time when state and local education budgets are stripped to the bone, it is astounding that North Carolina’s elected officials in the Democratic Party are refusing to abandon their traditional support of the public education machine, which includes the school boards association, the school superintendents, and the NC Association of Educators, which is an affiliate of the National Education Association union. Another Race to the Top requirement is that to be eligible to receive funds, those groups must be on board with the state’s application. None of these groups are willing to agree to the requirement that the charter cap be lifted. As a result, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson and Gov. Perdue crafted the compromise legislation to “allow” districts to create “charter-like” schools that would still be under the control of the local boards of education. The bill passed without a single Republican vote in favor of it, but the school boards, superintendents, and NCEA all enthusiastically backed it.
There is nothing in the new law that school districts were not already empowered to do before its passage. It is simple smoke and mirrors, designed to try to fool the Race to the Top selection team into thinking that North Carolina is a progressive, reform-minded state when it comes to education choice, when in fact the complete opposite is true. The “charter-like” schools (and the per-pupil funding they generate) will still be under the control of the same boards of education, superintendents, principals, and teachers that allowed them to fail in the first place. The recent dismal performance of the Halifax, NC school district on state testing after a year of being taken over by the Department of Public Instruction shows how unrealistic the expectation is that the current system can repair itself.
It is a shame and a disgrace that our governor and other elected representatives are willing to forego millions of dollars in education funding in order to maintain the status quo. North Carolina has more National Board Certified Teachers than any other state in this country. We invented the term “education governor” when we first elected James B. Hunt, Jr., who is also a founding member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. We still have some great public school districts that don’t need to fear that a charter school will open in their backyard--because they are already doing a top-notch job. Hayesville High School has the third-highest graduation rate in the entire state, for example.
I never in my life thought I would see the day when Tennessee is rightfully deemed an educationally progressive state, while North Carolina is not. It’s a $400 million gamble that our school children will lose, again, while our governor “wins” by hanging onto the votes of those who populate the education machine. The Lottery exposes the truth that in many districts in this country, the public education system places the interests and preferences of adults far above the best interests of children. North Carolina is, shamefully, one of those places.
Dr. Monica Henson Bomengen is a native of Hayesville who now lives in Highlands. She established Schools21, an educational consulting company, in 2008, and works with school districts, charter schools, and state departments of education on school turnaround issues. A member of Democrats for Education Reform, the NC Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Georgia Charter School Association, Dr. Bomengen is a regional and national speaker and writer on education reform issues. She introduced The Lottery at its Asheville premiere and will speak at the NC Alliance’s first annual conference in July. She will speak at the National Dropout Prevention Network’s annual conference in Philadelphia in November.