05SchoolsThis editorial originally ran in The Fayetteville Observer, Sunday Sept. 23, 2018. It is reprinted here, with Bill Harrison’s permission. 

Wesley Meredith has been a state senator for eight years, providing him ample time to build a record with the people of Cumberland County. If his latest television ads are to be believed, Senator Meredith wants the people to weigh that record come November, particularly his record of support for public schools. It’s important then that the voters of Cumberland County receive the whole story, so they can judge Senator Meredith’s record accordingly. 

Before Senator Meredith went to Raleigh, North Carolina was viewed as a shining light for education policy in the South. Our state was a national leader in bipartisan education reforms that had real, positive impacts on the students of this state. We led the nation in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, attracted the best and brightest into teaching via the Teaching Fellows program and we helped students earn college degrees while still in high school via the state’s award-winning Learn and Earn program. 

These investments drove student performance gains through the nineties and into this century. In 2011, North Carolina students outperformed their peers from educational juggernauts like Finland, the United Kingdom, and Canada on international math tests, and was singled out by Harvard University as one of six states for making the most academic gains per dollar spent. 

Things were not perfect. School districts were operating on tight budgets, teacher pay was below the national average, and too many students – especially those from low income families – weren’t provided the resources necessary to overcome barriers to success. These problems were compounded when a historic recession required substantial cut- backs in North Carolina’s budget. We assumed the budget cuts were going to be temporary, and that the state would continue on the path of growth and improvement once the economy recovered. This was the state of education when voters sent Wesley Meredith to Raleigh. Unfortunately, he’s failed to address the problems facing our schools. In many instances, he’s actually made things worse. 

In eight years in office, Meredith has starved our public schools of the resources needed to succeed. Adjusted for inflation, per-student funding remains 5 percent below pre-Recession levels. Under Senator Meredith’s watch, our schools are now getting fewer teachers, assistant principals, and teacher assistants. Funding for textbooks and classroom supplies is about half of where it was before the Recession. And over a period where school shootings are becoming distressingly more frequent, Senator Meredith has reduced funding for school nurses, psychologists, and counselors by 9 percent. 

Senator Meredith touts his record on teacher pay, but there’s little for him to be proud of. When Senator Meredith got to Raleigh, average teacher pay in North Carolina trailed the national average by 16 percent. Seven years later (no data exists yet for this school year), average teacher pay in North Carolina continues to trail the national average by 16 percent. In fact, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute singled out North Carolina for exceptionally poor marks in teacher pay. The gap between what teachers earn in North Carolina and the pay earned by other college-educated professionals in the state is the second-highest in the nation. It is no surprise then that enrollment in university teaching programs has plummeted under Meredith’s watch. 

Rather than providing schools with the resources they need to succeed, Senator Meredith has pursued an agenda grounded in misguided ideology, rather than evidence of what really works for our kids. Meredith has championed virtual charter schools that have failed in every other state and have been among the worst-performing in North Carolina. He has supported unaccountable voucher programs that have done more to boost fraud and embezzlement than they have to boost student performance. He supports an A-F grading system that stigmatizes high-poverty schools, even those making huge gains. And his effort to boost third grade read- ing scores by threatening to retain young children failing their end-of-grade test has backfired tremendously, with third grade reading scores nosediving precipitously over the past five years. 

Senator Meredith has gone to unprecedented ends to advance his misguided agenda. He and his colleagues have illegally gerrymandered voting districts and sought to make it harder for regular folks to vote. He has buried controversial programs in massive budget bills, released in the dead of night, to avoid open debate and input from knowledgeable stakeholders. Through it all, Meredith has consistently ignored and shunned our state’s greatest asset for shaping education policy: the expertise of experienced educators. 

A change in leadership in Raleigh will put our schools back on a path that will raise opportunities for success for all of Cumberland County’s children. 

First, Cumberland County needs education leaders who will invest in programs that help students from low-income families overcome poverty- related barriers to learning. Expansion of the state’s high-quality pre-kindergarten program and invest- ments in student health and nutrition will help to ensure that all students arrive at our schools ready to learn. 

Second, policymakers must admit that choice is not a substitute for quality. It does families little good to give them “a choice” between an under- funded charter school and an underfunded traditional public school. 

Third, we must continue to uplift the teaching profession, aiming for pay packages that are competitive with other professions, providing teachers with greater flexibility to mold curriculum to meet their students’ needs, and meaningfully including educators in the policymaking process. 

Finally, leaders must restore investments to the classroom to ensure that all students have the textbooks, supplies, and equipment necessary for all students to thrive. All students deserve field trips, after-school programs, exposure to the arts and music, and high-quality learning opportunities that engage students at all levels. 

If there’s one lesson to take away from Wesley Meredith’s eight years in office, it’s that he has no intention of putting Cumberland County’s schools back on that path to success. Despite what his misleading ads try to claim, his actual track record shows that his concern for our schools and teachers is – at best – an afterthought. Luckily, Cumberland County voters are smart enough to see through his claims and put North Carolina schools back onto a successful path. 

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