I recently read the QCity Metro interview with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston. As I was reading, I remembered what I saw and learned as a Mecklenburg County commissioner: namely, that multiple factors contribute to the success (or failure) of our students and families.
Winston tried to explain this without sounding as if he were shifting blame for low test scores.
This is the difficult position we put all our leaders in, whether they are elected or hired. If they say they are not the only ones in the system who are responsible for outcomes, they look weak, as if they are ducking responsibility. If they accept responsibility and say they will work every hour of every day to improve things, they set themselves up for failure, and the blame and name calling is compounded.
It is a lose-lose situation because we as residents don’t see our communal and collective responsibility to lift up our students.
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The reality is that, in the United States and especially in North Carolina, we do not tax ourselves enough to have the government meet every need.
We see this in healthcare, where our state has not expanded Medicaid. More a half-million people survive day to day without health insurance while our state contemplates giving part of its $8 billion surplus back to corporations.
Those with resources have other options – like private schools, private country clubs, and concierge medical clinics. The rest rely on the kindness of strangers, literally, to fill the gaps.
Many say they would rather let people decide voluntarily to support social programs and not have the government do it for them through taxes. This is a noble concept, but in reality, it leaves many behind. Not all the gaps are filled, and not all areas are supported equally.
Private schools can elect to turn away students who are too challenging to serve; our public schools cannot. Public means everyone. No matter the behavioral challenges, the abusive home lives, the disabilities or the chronic illnesses that children bring with them, the public system accepts them and hopes to prepare them for brighter futures.
Moreover, other public-sector areas also share responsibility for educating our children. The state of North Carolina, for example, has the constitutional responsibility to provide every child with a “sound basic education.” But it has underfunded school systems across the state so badly that they are under a court order to increase funding.
Winston did not mention state underfunding in his interview. He refused to shift responsibility, so he gets rewarded with blame and criticism and finger pointing. But the Leandro decision, which ruled in 1997 that the state was failing our children, has been hard to enforce. It has become a hot potato tossed back and forth among politicians and the courts for literally decades.
Why is every parent not calling state legislators demanding that they direct some of that multi-billion dollar surplus to our children?
Our counties and cities also contribute to education. They are responsible for social services, public and mental health, public parks, housing, homelessness prevention and more. All of these services support and prepare our families and our students for success. We know mental health can stand in the way of academic achievement, but waiting lists are long for appointments, whether you can afford to pay or not.
My point is this: we all — in the public, private, and non-profit sectors — are responsible for the education of our future engineers, teachers, doctors, firefighters and software developers.
Can we look at our collective responsibility and work together for change?
If you look at our thriving philanthropic and non-profit sector in Charlotte, you will be overwhelmed to see how much individuals and corporations contribute voluntarily to our community. Our community foundation – the Foundation for the Carolinas – is one of the largest in the country.
For educational achievement, there are numerous after-school programs in Mecklenburg County trying to help fill the gap. They help with everything from basic reading skills to emotional and social learning to career readiness and leadership.
Meanwhile, groups such as the Reimagining America Project are addressing racial bias and inequities that make success harder for students of color. In other examples, I love reading about what organizations like the Greater Enrichment Program or Our Bridge for Kids are doing for students.
Just looking at the Meck Ed locator you can find more than 500 organizations helping our kids make the grade.
So, if you want to support our underfunded public school and our superintendent in a productive way, there are many places to donate your time, your talent or your treasure.
Our system relies on volunteers to fill the gaps, so please think about stepping up. Our kids and our future thank you in advance.