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80-Year-Old North Carolina Educator: Why I Am Going to Risk Arrest Today

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Today I am participating in a non-violent and peaceful protest called Moral Mondays. I join ministers, students, teachers, and other concerned citizens at the state capitol in Raleigh because I am deeply concerned about the legislation of this session of the North Carolina General Assembly.  In my judgment, many laws and pending laws that will guide public policy and practice are not in the public interest, and, in many instances, will have a negative effect on the future of our state.  Children and youth, who are our future, need schooling and health that fosters the best of citizenship as well as preparation for living and working in our society. I am most concerned about the bills affecting the public schools and opportunities of post-secondary education. Families and women’s health issues also relate to and affect educational opportunities.

I was born in 1932 and am a child of the Great Depression and World War II.  My oldest brother went into the Army in January, 1942 and I knew many older brothers of my friends who did not survive. Part of my DNA is being concerned about family and neighbors and helping each other whenever we could. It was fathers and daughters who kept farms going; indeed, a neighborhood girl friend and her father were with my dad and me in a field working when someone came along to tell us that the war in the Pacific had ended.  My brother was on the Pacific high seas that very day, and he got to come home safely, thank goodness.

Back then, neighbors and citizens knew how to care about each other, which brings me to my concern about what is happening right now to families and communities around the state. The list of bills proposed by one or both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly in spring of 2013 is long. Too many of these proposals appear to be poorly thought out.  As a citizen who has not ever missed the opportunity to vote in local, state, and national elections, I now have the feeling that my voice is not being considered. Participating in a protest is my way of letting members of the General Assembly know that there are other voices that they need hear.

My career in public education began in the fall of 1954, following the Brown versus Board of Education decision, which made it unlawful to deny black children the same opportunities as white children in our public schools.  For the next forty years I served as an elementary teacher, middle school mathematics and science teacher, school counselor, elementary school principal, and as a teacher of future teachers and administrators at North Carolina State University.

Six years as principal of Wiley Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina were a major influence in all that I have accomplished.  Calvin H. Wiley, for whom the school was named, was the first state superintendent of schools.  He convinced the governor not to divert school funds to the Civil War effort, among other important achievements. At Wiley School I learned first-hand how effective teachers are and the extent to which they go beyond their duties to not only teach but to establish a climate for learning that makes a difference in their students’ lives. Not only were the three R’s essential but also music and art.  We considered our school as a “workshop for learning.” 

Inequalities in education have always been in the forefront of my work. In the early years in public schools, there were two important changes underway: the desegregation of schools and the special education movement.   Change comes slowly; for example, Wiley and another Raleigh school (Murphey) had the very first teachers in special education in the state.  My teacher’s salary for that first year was provided by the Woman’s Club of Raleigh because there were no funds available.  The next year, local school supplement funds were used to pay the teacher, and eventually the state began funding special education instructors. When I was principal, the teachers and I spent weeks prior to the first day of school working out transportation for students coming from all across the city. Fortunately, the rights of special needs students are very different today. Progress in education is occurring -- and I don’t want the legislature and the governor to slow it down, which various legislative proposals will surely do.

In the late 1960s, I was a statewide committee’s researcher for the legislation establishing kindergartens in North Carolina.  Here, again, local funds were already supporting kindergarten classes as the state began to do so. More recently, preschool education has focused attention on preparing children for kindergarten. I salute the state's early childhood teachers whose work, I submit, is as important as the teachers of doctoral students at the university. Society loses when either level is neglected. All teachers warrant our respect and support.  When conducting curriculum audits in school districts across the state during which I  and members of my team visited all schools in a district, my respect increased.  Teachers deserve praise, not threats.

It seems to me that the members of the General Assembly need to “make haste slowly” and not introduce and pass laws that appear to me too often to be an effort to cater to special interests rather than to foster education.  Unintended consequences of such action may be more troublesome than the addressing the motivation for such laws. Here is a list specific bills that are pending and need to be defeated:

  • Senate Bill 337  creating an independent board to manage charter schools is a bad idea from all perspectives, especially in diluting the State’s responsibility to assure a quality education for all. One board for public elementary and secondary education is sufficient along with the elected school superintendent.  Both reflect the people of the State in ways two separate boards cannot.  Aldo, more information is needed before having the State pay for charter school teachers who do not have a teacher license; caution is required to safeguard students’ right to reliable and responsible instruction.
  • House Bill 969 has a good feature in having the state paying for students’ Advanced placement exam fees but linking teachers’ bonuses to students’ high scores is not. Too many variables make such a practice unfair to both students and teachers. An unintended consequence can be more selective students thereby fostering the higher scores whereas more students should be challenged to seek the AP status thereby benefiting from the challenge.
  • Senate Bill 189 and House Bill 230 in expanding the definition of home schools, should it pass, will require more oversight in assuring students; rights to quality education. Transparency is essential; this may be where tiring students test scores to teacher effectiveness might be revealing. 
  • Senate Bill 236 providing for county commissioners to take over school construction is another bad idea. School building plans need decision-making close to the users.  Duplication of offices and staffs would occur as both school boards and boards of commissioners would need to collaborate.  The justification for this law escapes me.

I could go on to deplore many proposed laws that tend to turn back the clock on gains made for greater equality and opportunity for citizens and their families.  Employers, private and public, benefit from strong families and communities. I devoted my entire career to making sure that all of our children get the very best education possible, and I am willing to be arrested today to make my voice heard to the North Carolina General Assembly.

Cross-posted from AlterNet.