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Time to step up on education

November 25, 2013

There’s nothing worse than a complainer — except a complainer who expects someone else to solve a problem. So I have a challenge for conservatives who, with good reason, rail against the state of public education in North Carolina: If you truly believe individual responsibility is a fundamental tenet of conservatism, get off your couch and help the hundreds of thousands of children trapped in a stagnant education system that is failing them.


As the state’s abysmal 2012 test scores reveal, the next generation desperately needs you. Just 41 percent of North Carolina eighth-graders were proficient in reading. That means six of 10 young teens don’t read well enough to meet basic requirements for their grade. These kids have an even tougher time with math. Only 34 percent of eighth-graders met the proficiency standard in math, meaning 66 percent lag behind.


Dig deeper into Department of Public Instruction data and the bad news gets worse, particularly for minority boys and poor kids. As my John Locke Foundation colleague Terry Stoops has pointed out, a mere 12.5 percent of male African-American students in grades third through eight were proficient in reading and math. Black male students scored only one-tenth of a point higher than migrant children.


Hispanic male students are in a similar, albeit slightly better, position. Of the 49,359 who took the state tests in grades third through eighth, just 9,246 were proficient in reading and math — a mere 18.7 percent. That leaves 40,113 of these Hispanic boys looking at a bleak future.


The story is the same for poor kids. Of the 377,891 North Carolina public school kids who took the tests and are deemed “economically disadvantaged,” only 17.4 percent — 65,914 — met the proficiency bar for grades third through eighth in reading and math. A staggering 311,977 didn’t hit the minimum standard.


“Shocking and heartbreaking” is an understatement.


It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize the difficulty these kids face in high school, if they stay in. If they give up and drop out, their personal plight becomes our societal plight. You and I will have no choice but to deal with the ramifications of their inability to be gainfully employed and self-supporting.


While we continue the fight for more options for these kids and their parents, we also must address the existing crisis. Conservatives don’t shy from challenges or hard work. These 430,000-plus kids need conservatives to care about them as individuals, and to take action as individuals. The most obvious step is to volunteer at a public school as a mentor or in some other capacity that directly impacts learning. If the school has you helping teachers, run away. Remind them you are there to help students. And if they counter that you don’t have credentials to teach, show them the results of students taught by the so-called experts.


If you are rebuffed at a traditional school, try a charter school. These public schools are operated by out-of-the-box thinkers who are likely to be open-minded to people who come to their doors with a student-first attitude and an offer to dig in.


Outside the classroom, support legislators and legislation that give parents a choice in how their children will be educated. The movement has scored important victories over the past several years. House Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, has been an unapologetic champion for a slate of choices, including public charter schools. Thousands of families are benefiting from opportunity scholarships for kids with special needs and kids from low-income families, thanks to Stam and a bipartisan legislative coalition of Democrats and Republicans.


Conservatives’ efforts to address today’s crisis must be coupled with an eye on the future. We must become teachers, curriculum specialists, principals, and superintendents if we expect to change the education trajectory. That means being proud of our kids and grandkids who choose teaching, just as we are proud of them when they choose business and entrepreneurship.


It is our time to step up. The liberal education establishment has made its mark on North Carolina, and the results speak volumes.


Donna Martinez is co-host of Carolina Journal Radio.