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Value of public schools: The great divide in North Carolina GOP?

GOP support helped Paul Bailey win a seat on the CMS board in 2013. Now he says Republican lawmakers are on the wrong path.
GOP support helped Paul Bailey win a seat on the CMS board in 2013. Now he says Republican lawmakers are on the wrong path.

About two years ago, the Republican-dominated southern suburbs of Mecklenburg County elected Paul Bailey to represent them on the school board. He was endorsed by a roster of GOP officials that included three state legislators.

That made Bailey’s comments on the Republican-dominated General Assembly this week all the more striking.

“I’m extremely concerned that we have a state that is dismantling our public school system,” he said. “This state is going in the wrong direction when it comes to public education.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s summer grousing about the budget process can be as much a part of the academic cycle as snow closings and spring testing. But this year it has taken on a sharper edge.

“I’m a Republican,” Bailey told me after Tuesday’s board meeting. “But I’m just tired of this crap.”

This, um, stuff includes a delayed budget that leaves districts across North Carolina with unresolved questions about hiring, layoffs, salaries, programs and textbooks less than a month before schools open. It includes elimination of jobs for teacher assistants, who, most local educators say, perform vital classroom work for bargain-basement pay.

Board members voiced frustration that the state’s stopgap budget sets aside millions for scholarships to send public school students to private schools. While public schools with low test scores now get failing letter grades, with talk of turning some over to charter chains, private schools that get voucher money face no scrutiny. And publicly funded charters keep growing and competing with school districts for money and students.

Tuesday’s budget report included complaints that county commissioners, led by Democrats, didn’t provide as much money as CMS requested. And all board members aired their share of concerns.

But the sharpest criticism of state leaders came from the board’s GOP members.

“This makes me laugh, it’s so ridiculous,” Rhonda Lennon said.

“We are getting ready to open our classroom doors. ... And we don’t have a clue yet if we’re going to have to (lay off) 500 teacher assistants or try to hire almost 140 new teachers,” Tim Morgan said.

Larry Shaheen, a Republican political consultant from Charlotte, says the state’s Republicans are split between those who support public education and those who believe that private business can do better than government schools. In a state that’s currently dominated by the GOP, he says, that struggle will shape the state’s future.

“Regardless of your political persuasion, North Carolina has a rich heritage of public education. You can’t just dismantle it because it happens to be built by Democrats,” said Shaheen, who worked on Morgan’s and Bailey’s campaigns and counts himself in the pro-public education camp.

Shaheen says national tensions, including teacher unions that demonize Republicans, fuel attitudes in Raleigh. But he says polls support his contention that in Mecklenburg and across North Carolina, belief in public schools crosses party lines.

“Republicans have got to get better on public education,” he said, “and if they don’t, the majority in Raleigh will be unsustainable.”

Of course, education issues are much more complex than thumbs up or down. GOP legislators would note that they’ve boosted pay for early-career teachers and made other changes they believe improve public education.

This summer’s drama plays out as the federal government seems ready to hand more control of education to state legislatures and local school boards.

A few hours before Tuesday’s board meeting, I heard a panel of experts talk about the proposals that could take the place of No Child Left Behind as early as this fall. They agreed that the rules and penalties that characterized NCLB, and to some extent the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, will be weaker under the current proposals.

Bethany Little of EducationCounsel, an education consulting firm, characterized NCLB as a cage.

“The door of the cage is clearly going to be flung open,” she told an Education Writers Association webinar group. “Will anybody come out?”

In North Carolina, state lawmakers are charging out. The argument we’re seeing is whether they should be compared to liberated prisoners or uncaged beasts.