Apropos of our Best of the Triangle issue, let me offer one more thing for which the Triangle itself is tops: We are the best place in America to observe whether public education as we know it will survive.
That's the question behind the debate in Wake County, where the struggle over student assignments, now reduced to the Blue option versus the Green option, has made national headlines. It's also the question in the budget fight unfolding in Raleigh between Gov. Bev Perdue and the General Assembly.
What crystallized the problem for me was a pair of reports that landed on my desktop within a day of each other a few weeks ago.
One was by Sarah Ovaska of NC Policy Watch, which profiled a charter school in Rutherford County with exactly one political group for students—a Young Republicans Club—plus an annual diaper drive to support a local Christian group's anti-abortion activities.
Another was on the Talking Points Memo blog (drawing on work by People for the American Way), about how conservative groups are attempting to block the public schools from teaching, or even suggesting, that homosexuality is OK.
And there it was: the traditional public school model, a melting pot of kids from different backgrounds, with its bias toward acceptance and exposing kids to all sides of an argument, versus the charter school model of public education, in which kids are separated according to their parents' ideology or religion, and the curriculum is whatever the parents think it should be.
Indy readers won't be surprised to learn that the Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County, like three other charter schools in western North Carolina, receives funds from a wealthy Oregonian, John Bryan, who has ties to the multibillionaire Koch brothers, who in turn have ties to our Raleigh pal, the very rich Art Pope.
These fellows are to right-wing Republican politics as AIG was to collateralized debt: They may not have invented it, but they sure are stoking the boilers to the point of explosion.
In Raleigh, legislation backed by Pope's empire of conservative groups (John Locke, Civitas and so on) would permit an unlimited number of charter schools, blowing off the statewide cap of 100. It's nearing enactment.
A half-century ago, when I first entered a public school, the wealthy seemed content with private schools for their own children. Meanwhile, they watched as a steadily expanding middle class moved to the suburbs for public schools devoid of many poor kids.
In short, a place for everyone and everyone in his place. But still, within that limiting framework, the ideal was held high that the public schools should prepare all children to deal with whatever, and whoever, the world would throw at them.
This changed with the civil rights and women's rights movements, however. Before long, public school teachers who'd come of age in the 1960s or later were expounding multiculturalism, including the view that the great white Founding Fathers might've had a flaw or two. Capitalism, even, was questioned, with its central idea that the rich deserved—well, more.
Rich white men, therefore, could no longer remain aloof at their Andover and Ravenscroft academies while the masses were learning to despise them.
Fortunately, two factors arose giving the rich a chance to assert control. One was sex education. Space doesn't permit me to explore all the ramifications of the sexual revolution, legal abortions, TV, birth control, delaying marriage for college and so on. Suffice to say that parents who worried that their daughter would, uh, do it with the wrong boy and be ruined forever, either by pregnancy or abortion (or damnation), had one more thing to worry about when schools started teaching the what's what and the how-to.
The gay rights revolution was the other factor. Parents convinced that being gay is optional could easily believe that their children might choose the "wrong" path—with their teachers encouraging them to think for themselves!
OMG, the last thing we want is our kids thinking for themselves.
Middle-class parents were alarmed. And the rich white men were on it.
So what does all this have to do with Perdue and the state budget? The budget passed by the General Assembly would cut per-pupil spending on K–12 education in North Carolina from $8,303 a year to $7,807, dropping us to 49th of 50 states in that category.
But who cares if the public schools suck in general, as long as "our" kids can go to charter schools that "we" pay for. That is, to schools that receive maybe 90 percent of that $7,807 from the taxpayers, and then we, the middle-class parents, can add some of our own money and probably get more from the likes of Art Pope.
Trust me, we won't even need $7,807 per student as long as we don't have to accept any of those poor kids who don't read well because their parents don't read at all. And by the way, we won't have any discipline problems because if a kid acts up, we throw him out and he goes back to the "other" (we call it the lamestream) public school system. But we get to keep the per-pupil funding if he was here for more than 20 days.
What's in it for the rich white people? Just the chance to control the curriculum, which, in addition to not teaching sex education or why it would be wrong to bully a gay kid, will also teach that climate change is bogus (denial is common for the Kochs and Bryan) and that capitalism is what makes Western civilization the bomb (a Pope favorite).
In Wake County, too, the debate over reassignment is about whether kids benefit from being in a melting pot or, conversely, in schools where the other kids' values and the parents' values are mostly alike.
For 30 years, Wake put some kids on buses and sent them across town, or even to another town, to school. At first, the stated point was racial diversity. Wake's neighborhoods were—and still are—racially segregated. The schools shouldn't be. Later, the point was socioeconomic diversity. But a side benefit was that kids learned to adapt to different schools.
Now diversity is out, thanks to the current school board majority. And the issue has changed to ensuring proximity and stability, on one hand, versus avoiding schools with too many low-achieving kids on the other.
Proximity and stability are code for assigning Johnny or Jane to an elementary school near home (the Green plan), or letting their parents choose from among several such schools (the Blue plan), but never forcing them out of their comfort zone—or rather, out of their parents' comfort zone.
The Blue plan, which Superintendent Tony Tata clearly intends to recommend to the school board on June 21, offers an additional assurance: Once Johnny or Jane is in a school, he or she won't ever be reassigned to another school in the same age range unless the parents choose it.
That's the so-called stability factor. It's not quite a charter-school system, but it's as close as Wake County can get without raising taxes and building more schools, neither of which the Republicans who run the county now are interested in doing.
Two big questions remain about the Blue Plan that Tata candidly says haven't been fully answered yet. The plan, he admits, is still highly conceptual, with many details remaining to be resolved.
One question is, what happens to Wake County if, in four or five years, all the desirable schools are full and can't accept new arrivals? Does growth stop? Do taxes increase in order to throw more money at the undesirable, under-enrolled schools?
The second, related, question is, if the high-poverty neighborhoods are left with high-poverty schools, and kids from the middle-class neighborhoods don't choose them, and kids from the low-income neighborhoods don't choose them either, who gets stuck going to them?
We all know the answer to that one. Because in most of America, if not in Wake County yet, a good public education has come to mean that you should be prepared to deal with whatever life throws at you, as long as Mom and Dad approve it first.