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Most parents are happy with their public schools

Public policy is, in many regards, akin to steering a supertanker. It takes a long time to change direction.

Here in North Carolina, we've embarked on a major public policy change that likely has flown under the radar of many, if not most of our citizens.

A decade ago, the state legislature included something called the Opportunity Scholarship program as part of the state budget. It was pitched as a way to help poor children escape public schools that were below par.

North Carolina isn't the only state with a voucher program. Once a bit of fringe theory, the voucher movement has over the last couple of decades gained steam in many parts of the country.

It's not merely gaining steam in North Carolina; it's downright turbocharged. This year's budget calls for about a billion dollars in new spending over the next decade, going from $176.5 million this year to more than half a billion each year by the 2032-33 budget.

The argument remains that parents deserve a choice if their children are in failing public schools. That's hard to argue with.

On the other hand, if public schools are failing and we don't have the money to fix them, it's sort of hard to argue that we have the money to fund scores of new schools through such a boom in voucher spending.

Despite the fact that most parents are happy with their public schools, there's a cottage industry out there saying they aren't . Public schools have long been under attack but not with the level of fury that has been seen in recent years. From Commom Core to Critical Race Theory to a variety of LGBTQ controversies to the catch-all of "wokeism,'" public schools have been a punching bag. The uncertainity of the COVID era, a new pandemic few of us knew anything about sparked a whole new round of criticism when schools were, at the bottom line, trying to figure out how to keep kids alive.

Were some mistakes made? Certainly. We were on an entirely new playing field when it came to a new disease. More than 1 million dead Americans later, it's safe to say public schools probably made fewer mistakes than other public sectors.

Regardless, COVID helped spur a new push toward vouchers and provatization. And that push certainly has some hallmarks. In North Carolina, the top 71 recipients of the state's $134 million vouchers were religious schools, mainly Christian schools with a scattering of Islamic schools.

Church and state separation arguments aside, there are some problems here. Private schools, unlike public schools, don't have to take everyone. Public schools have to provide services to students who need special services or accomodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Experiments with vouchers elsewhere have been...instuctional. Billed as a way to get kids out of failing public schools, in Arizona three-quarters of initial applicants for vouchers had never been in a public school in the first place. In Wisconsin, more than 40 percent of voucher schools have closed since that state's program begain in 1990. A person with a cynical eye might think some schools were started just to collect voucher money. A person with a synical eye might also note that education budgets are the largeest outlays for state govenrments.

Ome of the biggest concerns of all about our fracturing educatiron system boils down to E. Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one.

"An education system is the reproductrive organ of every culture,' worte Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D., back 2004,'...a society's culture is a living entity which transcends all the society's individual members. A society's culture can survive far longer than the lifespan of any of its members, because its educational system passes down the folkways and knowledge of one generation to subsequent generations. A culture changes over time, but has a recognizable continuity of basic values and behavioral patterns that distinguishes it from other cultures. That continuity is provided by the educational system."

But the educaiton systemn itself needs continuity. A public education system mixes kids from differrent backgorunds and social statuses and, ideally, lets them learn how to deal with those who are different.

"If a school system provides a basic curriculum which is the same for all students, the adults who emerge will hold the same basic knowledge and atitutdes as one another," Conklin continued. "Certainly, there will be great differendes of individual ability and outcome; but there will be an underlying cohesiveness. However, if some schools admit only certain kinds of students and give them an educational program significantly different from other schools, it can be expected that the emerging adults will hold fundamentally different attitudes and beliefs."

"The easiest way to break apart a society long-term without using violence is to establish separate educational systems for the groups to be broken apart."

Is that the path we're on in North Carolina - indeed, in much of Americaa?

That remains to be seen. But one thing's for sure: This shoip has left the dock.

And if we're on the wrong course, it will take us a very long time to turn it around.

Jim Buchanan is a longtime mountain journalist and author.

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