We’re getting what we pay for with NC schools, and that’s not good

North Carolina’s school children are back in school. Their teachers will teach. The administrators and counselors will manage and advise. The teacher assistants, bus drivers and custodians will do their part. And Republican state lawmakers will do hardly a thing.

Eight years into their starve-the-public-schools program, the state’s legislative leaders can cite no progress in what is arguably their first responsibility: to educate the next generation of North Carolinians.

Oh, they’ve talked about improving public schools. They’ve wagged their fingers at teachers who they see as ungrateful for paltry raises. They instituted a Read to Achieve program that was supposed to have most children reading at grade level by third grade. They’ve branded schools serving low-income areas with “Ds” and “Fs” so the market will magically force them to improve. They’ve offered vouchers to subsidize tuition at schools with no curriculum standards. They’ve lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools, almost doubling their number. They’ve invited virtual charter schools to have children taught by a teacher on a screen.

And what have they accomplished? Little positive, plenty negative.

The North Carolina school test scores came out last week. So did a new national report card on public education. The results for North Carolina varied from discouraging to grim.

The state’s test scores showed the 57.2% passing rate on state reading exams in grades three through eight was virtually unchanged from the previous year’s 57.3%. Schools receiving an “A” or “B” rating increased from 35.6% to 37.3%. But those are affluent schools showing a tiny gain. But an analysis by The News & Observer found that 60% of the schools in which a large majority of students are low income received a “D” or an “F.”

J.B. Buxton is a State Board of Education member who advised Gov. Mike Easley on education back in the days when North Carolina was committed to improving public schools. He gave an apt summary of this year’s test results: “It’s more like when my kids learned [to drive] stick and there’s a little bit of lurch forward and a little bit of roll back, but in general not a lot of progress.”

As for the national report card released by Education Week — the 2019 Quality Counts report — Buxton may have used a different image: It’s like the car went in reverse and into a ditch. North Carolina receives a C-minus grade, mostly because of a dismal level of per-student funding that the report slapped with an “F.” According to the report, North Carolina spent $9,367 per pupil — ranking it 48th in the nation. The national average is $12,756.

In 2011, when Republicans took control of the General Assembly, the report ranked North Carolina schools overall as 19th nationally. Not great, but clearly trying. North Carolina is now ranked 37th.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, is the reliable defender of the Republicans’ educational malpractice. On cue, he told The N&O’s education reporter, Keung Hui, that there was a bright side to being 37th. He noted that North Carolina still outranks Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Maybe for now, but North Carolina isn’t done sinking. Years of underfunding is eating way at the foundation of traditional public schools. Some districts, such as Wake County, are maintaining standards through increases in property taxes. For many districts, that’s not an option. They’ll keep struggling and collecting the “D” and “F” grades imposed by the same lawmakers who talk a lot about school choice, but who have chosen not to help the public schools.