By MIRANDA BAINES
THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
Legislators, local education leaders and concerned citizens made a stand for public education in North Carolina at a press conference at Eastern Avenue Park in Rocky Mount Wednesday.
“Today, we’re sounding the alarm because it’s time to start paying attention to what’s happening in Raleigh,” said Bob Etheridge, former North Carolina State Superintendent and U.S. Congressman, as he rang a bell next to the podium. “We’re sounding the alarm for public schools. This is our 15th stop (of a statewide tour).”
Etheridge joined Public Schools First NC in spearheading Wednesday’s press conference. Those gathered for the conference held up signs with sayings such as, “Class size matters,” “Protect our classrooms,” and “Children are not cattle.”
In Etheridge’s view, the lawmakers in Raleigh are “turning their back” on the strong legacy of public education in North Carolina.
“North Carolina for roughly 100 years or longer has fought the battle to improve the quality of life for people through public education,” Etheridge said. “Education is something you invest in today to get a return for a long time to come in the future…And today more than any time in our history, we need to invest in public education.”
To him, the progress of the North Carolina Public School System speaks for itself – the start of early childhood education programs about 12 years ago and the subsequent rising of test scores, and graduation rates “higher than they’ve ever been.”
What Etheridge told the crowd what he sees is lawmakers wanting to get rid of the cap on class size in the early grades and “jam 30 or more” students in one classroom, refusing to pay teachers more for earning an advanced degree, cutting teacher assistants in grades two and three, and “more extreme lawmakers” wanting to fund vouchers to send students to private schools, in the form of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.
“We’re down to 46 in national rankings for teacher pay. We’re now 48th in public education funding. That’s awful,” said Etheridge. “We can’t afford to have these cuts.”
Former U.S. Congressman Tim Valentine also expressed his concern about the future of education in North Carolina.
“I have witnessed in my public and private life this state literally lift itself up by its bootstraps,” said Valentine, who was elected to Congress in 1954. “The General Assembly has seemed to target public education in this state, so unless we ‘shake a leg’ and spread the message…we won’t be able to recognize this state in 10 years.”
Anthony Clark, president of the North Carolina Rural Education Working Group, encouraged those gathered at the park to speak out in a “voice” for change and educational reform to “ultimately help the children of North Carolina.”
“This voice will be you and you and I,” Clark said, pointing to the members of the crowd.
“This voice will be the voice of humanity who understands that this is a time of crisis,
Clark spoke of threats to the state’s system of public education, specifically funding of pre-kindergarten education, which he believes will impact the state’s most vulnerable children.
“This budget will destroy the lives of children and people in North Carolina,” Clark said.
Evelyn Bulluck, chair of the Nash-Rocky Mount School Board, held up a sign at the press conference that read “Public Schools Matter” a sentiment that she says is “dearest to my heart.”
“Public schools matter, and we’ve got people in Raleigh now that don’t care about public schools at all. We’ve got to keep reminding them that public school is important,” Bulluck said. “There are more folk that can’t afford private school than those who can. We should be investing in all of our children, not just a few. Public schools educate every child that walks across the door.”
Her hope is that if she speaks out enough in defense of public education, eventually her voice will be heard.