By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

Superintendent ‘Speaks Truth To Power’ – Brevard NC


As a literature teacher for the past 29 years, I have often had the privilege of teaching books written about issues like the Holocaust or Civil Rights. Great literature often comes from periods of history where human beings have struggled and endured great injustices and triumphed over these injustices with the leadership of brave individuals who have stood up for important ideals like equality and justice. Often when teaching about these historical periods, my students will ask me, ‘”What did you do? Did you speak up?”

When I tell them I was too young to be involved, they then ask, “What do you think you would have done?”

I say, I hope I would not have been apathetic, or naïve or scared; I hope I would have done the right thing and voiced my opinion, no matter what my position in the society.

My students’ rhetorical questions about standing up to power and supporting values are more relevant than ever during the last five years as I watch the slow dismantling of our public schools by complicated forces, many associated with the continuing economic crisis and some associated with profit motives. The question for my time and place in history may well be, “What were you doing when the public education system in the United States was being slowly dismantled by self-interested entrepreneurs and corporate reformers. I know one person last week, Dr. Edward Prudent, superintendent of Brunswick County Schools, who spoke truth to power and helped to support “Everyday Education” in this country.

If you care about public education and its promise of educational equity for all of our children, read the words of Dr. Pruden’s as he addressed the N.C. legislators on the topic of tax credits and vouchers.

“Speaker Tillis and Members of the House Education Committee:

“Thank you for inviting school superintendents to the floor of the House today to discuss the needs of K-12 public education. We sincerely appreciate this unique and special opportunity for dialogue. Mr. Speaker, the superintendents of North Carolina are extremely concerned about any legislation that would create a tax credit or voucher system. Unanimously, North Carolina superintendents consider tax credits or vouchers to be the single greatest threat to public schools. Such legislation, coupled with other bills providing tax credits for children with disabilities, corporate scholarship funds, a Home School Education Income Tax Credit, and others have begun the process of defunding and unraveling the traditional public school system that has served the common good and general welfare of our state.

“In tax credits or vouchers, we see profound issues of accountability, accessibility, and public finance. In North Carolina and across the nation, there is a coordinated effort to pass laws that would divide schools into two tiers, thereby re-creating a dual system of public education in the United States. Both systems would be funded with taxpayers’ money, the same dollars now devoted to public schools.

“The upper tier of schools- private, sectarian, and charter - would be able to select their students, and would accept tax credits, vouchers, or scholarships as partial or full payment. This upper tier of schools would be in a position to choose students with greater academic potential and greater economic resources; and would be able to deny admission to students with educational challenges.

“The lower tier of schools would be the remnant of the present public school system and would serve the students who were not selected by private or charter schools: children of poverty, children with disabilities, children whose first language is not English.

“Whereas the old segregation was by race, the new segregation will be by socio-economic class. For those who desire the return of the social separation of bygone years, one is just about as effective as the other. We will be turning our backs on seventy years of social progress. We will be sowing the seeds for two Americas. As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’”

There have been only two institutions in which a cross-section of American society worked, learned, and played together: the armed forces and the public schools. These two institutions enabled Americans of every race, religion, and national origin to spend time discovering their common humanity and learning how to interact in meaningful and positive ways. These experiences prepared them for citizenship in a diverse society and for the world of work.

“Now that the armed forces are staffed entirely by volunteers, they no longer serve this purpose. This means that the public school is now the only institution remaining in which all of God’s children learn, play, and grow together, preparing them for effective citizenship and for participation in the workforces. This is America’s unique source of strength.

“The attempt to divide and privatize public education comes at a time when public schools are enjoying their greatest period of significant improvement. In North Carolina, the four-year graduation rate has risen from 66 percent in 1996 to an all-time high of 80 percent in 2012. The dropout rate is falling annually and is at the all-time low of 3.49 percent. New academic and accountability standards are strengthening public schools. Public schools are on a path of continuous improvement.

America’s public schools are the bedrock of our democracy and are the engine of the world’s greatest economy. They undergird the world’s greatest system of higher education. Most member of this General Assembly received their own education in public schools. Mr. Speaker, public schools weave the social fabric that binds our nation together. We cannot allow our school system to be perverted into an instrument of re-segregation or privatized for the enrichment of educational entrepreneurs.

“Horace Mann, recognized as the father of the American public school system, once said the ‘the public school is the greatest discovery made by man.’” Indeed, public schools are the wellspring of our sense of community, our economic prosperity, and our social fabric. Mr. Speaker, public education must be preserved, supported, and strengthened.”

As Benjamin Barber, a political scientist says in his book “An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America,” “Schools are the public nurseries of our future, and their wanton neglect entails a kind of silent social suicide.”

If you have not been paying attention to what is happening politically with public education in this country, Dr. Pruden’s speech should be a wake-up call. The dismantling of public education is one of the major issues of our time, and if we keep sleeping, we may see its demise.

(Burrows is director of teacher education at Brevard College.)


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