My Turn, Phil Kirk: Give credit where it’s due

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 3, 2022

By Phil Kirk

While three authors of a column published Feb. 13 (“NC school funding increases do not tell whole story”) tried to diminish my report on the greatly increased funding for K-12 schools by the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly, they failed miserably.

I will comment on just a few of the inaccuracies and misleading statements with some facts.

The authors, who are employed by two public universities, partially blamed inflation for the increased spending.  The fact is inflation has been very small until the current year of President Joe Biden’s term in office — when it has risen to the highest level in 40 years. It reached this level after the large budget increases of the previous 10 years.

They further emphasized the number of students in K-12 schools has grown tremendously, thus accounting for some of the increased spending. That is partially correct, but the growth has been in home schooling (160,000 students), private schools and charter public schools. By the way, they fail to point out our charter schools are public schools operating under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education. As the former chair of the State Board of Education, I would not have advocated for the charter school movement had it not been supervised by the State Board. Enrollment in the traditional public schools has actually declined by 24,000 from 2014 to 2020.

Mention was made that teaching positions were reduced. If that is the case, it was because enrollments dropped. Support staff such as nurses, psychologists, social workers and others have been added although their caseloads are still too high. Some community colleges are placing guidance counselors in the high schools to advise students on technical careers and college transfer options.
While I remain a strong supporter of K-12 schools, I am also a supporter of parental choice in where they send children to school. The poor could not afford this choice until the advent of Education Opportunity Scholarships. Certainly, most of the traditionalists oppose tax support of private schools, but I submit that competition makes everyone better. Opinion polls show that the public believes in school choice, which has been championed by Republicans.
Yes, teacher assistants in lower grades have been reduced by 7,000; however, there are still nearly 20,000 in our classrooms. TAs were reduced because of wide disagreement among the professionals of the benefits of reducing class size compared to the use of teacher assistants. So, the legislature has reduced class size. It is also true that the Teaching Fellows Program was temporarily abolished and reinstated for those who teach in fields of most need such as math and special education. This is a much-needed program, and I remain a strong advocate for its expansion and improvement.
Advocacy groups and so-called think tanks are populated with liberal-thinking people who suggest more dollars is the only answer, and that is why those mentioned in the column agree with the authors. Even the judge who supervised the famous Leandro case has stated numerous times that spending more billions of dollars is not the answer. The North Carolina Association of Educators is often cited as the voice for teachers even though fewer than 20% of teachers are actually members.
In closing, as a former public school teacher, I agree strongly that our educators have struggled and shown great courage during the past two years with COVID plus all the “normal” challenges in their classrooms each day. We will never be able to pay the most effective teachers what they are worth, but we are making progress with regular pay boosts and bonuses in the thousands of dollars. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
Phil Kirk, a native of Rowan County and former teacher, served as chairman of the State Board of Education under two Democratic governors.