Community forum focuses on public education
A panel of experts discuss funding, school vouchers and teacher pay in the last of three "Community Connections" programs held this school year.
The impact funding has on public education, especially in Alamance County, was the focus of a community conversation Wednesday evening.
“We all agree education is important, but we can’t agree on issues ranging from teacher pay to student performance, voucher programs and redistricting to name a few,” said Kenn Gaither, associate dean of the School of Communications, who moderated the discussion in McKinnon Hall.
More than 150 people attended the third and final "Community Connections" program planned for this year, and many submitted questions to the panel of experts that included Lillie Cox, superintendent of Alamance-Burlington School System, Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, Jeff Carpenter, assistant professor of education, and Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom.
Gaither started the session by providing results of a recent Elon Poll that indicated education and the economy are the most important issues to Alamance County residents. Residents polled cited a lack of resources as being the biggest problem facing the school system.
Alamance County’s per pupil spending and teacher pay are below the state average, and North Carolina ranks low in both categories nationally.
“Alamance-Burlington School System spends about $8,000 per year per student while Hyde County spends about $17,500 per student per year,” Carpenter said. “... I’ve never been to Hyde County but maybe the kids there are somehow worth more than the kids at ABSS.”
The disparities in funding across the state and nation impact the quality of education students receive, Carpenter said. Allison agreed that schools needed funding and teachers had to be adequately compensated in order for children to receive a quality education. However, he focused on a third component he thought was just as important.
“We also have to empower parents who have to ultimately make the decision on how to best educate their children, whether it be in a traditional or non-traditional school,” said Allison who favors school vouchers.
Allison noted that only 26 percent of low-income students are proficient in math and reading and that the majority of children who attend private schools come from upper middle class and wealthy families.
“Unfortunately, where you live and the amount of income your family makes plays a significant part in the quality education your child is going to receive,” Allison said.
Riddell presented a “snapshot of what the legislature was faced with last year” in regard to funding.
“We did not have a lot of extra money to put anywhere,” he said. “North Carolina had bills, big bills, and they had to be paid.”
Finding enough resources to balance a budget with an operating cost of $180 million is a challenge, Cox said, and raising teacher’s salaries continues to be a hot topic.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult to have a rationale to explain to a 15-year veteran that hasn’t seen a raise in many years who is now seeing beginning teachers that may have a salary very close to theirs,” Cox said.
Empowering teachers and treating them like professionals are two things she believes help to keep them in the classroom, but it’s not enough.
“At the end of the day, they have to be able to go home and support their families,” she said.
All of the panelists were asked what one “action item” would improve education outcomes in the classroom. Rebuilding families, community engagement, teacher education and a sharing of best practices among school leaders were the panelists’ responses.
But Paula Rosinski, an associate professor English who attended the forum and has a child at Elon Elementary School where she must provide items such as toilet paper, asked why no one mentioned raising taxes.
“Money isn’t everything, but it is relevant,” she said.
The panelists also were asked for their most compelling idea that would be a game-changer for Alamance County public schools. Carpenter said there needs to be more of a focus on what happens inside the classroom, but Riddell’s response brought it back to money. He suggested cutting state taxes and tightening the budget to get the economy moving again.
“When the economy is moving and growing, you’ll have money to invest again,” he said.
Allison said people should be open to innovative ideas.
“Let’s not push it off to the side because it’s not the normal way of doing business,” he said.
A “feeling of collective trust” would make a difference, Cox said.
“We need to be a community that stands behind public schools,” she said. “You speak with your vote. You speak with your voice. You become involved, and you encourage the public schools to be innovative. And when they want to be innovative, you trust in them and get behind them and support them.”