Fixing education will require collaborative approach

The timing of last week’s March for Students and Rally for Respect, coming as it did on a school day, splintered potential support for the 20,000 or so educators who turned red the streets in Raleigh — and tens of thousands more they represented.

Social media was abuzz, with some folks supporting the teachers unconditionally, some supporting their goals but questioning their decision to take more than 1 million students across North Carolina, including 23,000 in this county, out of class, and some who are weary of what they see as incessant whining from educators.

The teachers are making important points, and this state needs to do better, both in how teachers are paid and the resources they are provided. It is not a stretch to say this state’s future depends on it — and while the problems are evident all across North Carolina, they are more so in Robeson County, where the chickens have been roosting for awhile.

On the local level, the Board of Education has asked for a pie-in-the-sky 140 percent increase in local funding, and while it won’t get that, it will be instructive to see if there is a bump in funding, and if so how much. Additionally, the schools want voters to decide during a bonds referendum if they want new schools, or are satisfied sending children to schools that are falling apart, unsafe, and are too hot or too cold and rarely just right.

The issue has become politically charged, with Democrats being given the white hat, and Republicans the black one, even as the Republican-led General Assembly has provided pay raises to teachers for five straight years, and are poised to make that a sixth with one of 6.1 percent in the budget. When was the last time you got a 6.1 percent raise?

Republicans, and count Sen. Danny Britt among them, are frustrated that there isn’t a recognization of what has been done, and Democrats are trying to turn the issue into votes in November.

None of that is helpful as a collaborative approach is needed.

Teachers, wisely we believe, have been adamant that they didn’t march just for better pay. They have a shopping list, including: building new schools, and repairing others; fortifying schools to make them safer; increasing per-pupil spending; reinstating pay incentives for earning advanced degrees; the addition of nurses, psychologists, social workers and other support personnel; and expanding Medicaid.

We should be able to agree that Republicans and Democrats all want to provide a quality education to our children, even if they might disagree on how that can be accomplished. Democrats tend to want more money for traditional approaches, while Republicans tend to favor more choice for parents as well as a merit-based system to reward teachers.

We don’t know how the Innovative School District will turn out for the students at Southside Ashpole Elementary School, but we know it is a Republican-led effort that is targeting low-performing, high-minority schools, providing assurance that these children aren’t forgotten and hope that they can learn.

What is needed is a dispassionate look at what has been done and what remains, and part of that is acknowledging that the Republican-controlled General Assembly has led the effort to boost pay for teachers as well as money for textbooks, and work continues to try to figure out how to build new schools, which rural counties simply cannot do on their own. This has been done after teacher pay and education spending had been flat, the result of the Great Recession at the end of the last decade.

North Carolina’s economy is robust, with revenues routinely on the north side of projections. So the state has money to improve teacher pay, per-pupil spending, build and repair schools, and, we hope, find ways to reward and retain the best teachers. The best way for this to happen is not by alienating the controlling party, but by sitting down at the table with its leaders and finding solutions to the myriad of problems.