Superintendent’s View: Our Communities Can Only Be as Strong as Our Public Schools

Though business is booming, and our state is growing, our communities remain fragile because of how little we have invested in our public schools.

Guilford County Schools

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Just shy of a year ago, CNBC ranked North Carolina as No. 1 on its list of America’s Top States for Business. For North Carolinians, especially those who have lived their entire lives here as I have, this was no surprise. For years, state leaders have been intentional about making investments and building an infrastructure that positions North Carolina as a key destination for businesses across the globe.

In contrast, we have not done the same for public education.

As superintendent of Guilford County Schools, a place I have called home since kindergarten, I am often asked about what I have seen change in public education. My answer is always the same: not that much. Most notably, our teachers continue to be undervalued for their hard work and have seen few changes in compensation over the years, which is far behind the national average.

Do you see the problem here? Though business is booming, and our state is growing, our communities remain fragile because of how little we have invested in our public schools – which are often the top employers in communities across the state. Flourishing business in North Carolina brings us one step forward, but meager teacher compensation takes us two steps back. Burnout is intensifying, teachers are leaving, undergraduate teaching programs are enrolling fewer students – and all of this is happening in the wake of pandemic learning loss when our kids need high-performing and committed teachers most.

Our dollars speak volumes about our indifference.

I say this not with bullheaded partisanship or false alarm but with desperation for our state’s citizens to understand the realities we are facing and the dangerous trajectory we are on. Being the top state in business and the last in teacher pay is a future we cannot afford. It is a future where millions of kids lacking high-performing teachers are robbed of the opportunity that could have been theirs – and where our communities, once filled with promise, become fragile. I believe our kids deserve better – that we all deserve better. Our communities can only be as strong as our public schools, which is why we must invest in them with competitive compensation in order to attract and retain the best teachers.

Consider what our hard-working teachers have been able to accomplish despite decades of underfunding and inadequate pay. I think, for example, about the broad range of choice programs Guilford County Schools offers families that have been developed in partnership with businesses and aligned to workforce needs – including STEM, aviation, artificial intelligence, global logistics, biotechnology research and advanced manufacturing. We also have early and middle colleges, language immersion schools, top art programs and four public separate schools for students with severe and profound disabilities. These choice programs are completely unmatched in the private and charter school sector – and they are offered for free in order to transform life outcomes for all students regardless of zip code. Imagine, then, what our public schools might do with competitive teacher salaries and adequate funding. We would be able to attract the best teachers in the nation, giving our own students a competitive advantage to lead in a global economy.

What is special about public schools is that public schools belong to all of us, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or ability to pay. We take all students. That is not the case for private schools. If the bill to expand private school vouchers passes, however, even more resources will be taken away from our already underfunded schools.

I do not oppose families having the opportunity to choose the best school possible for their children, but that should not come at the expense of public education. If we want to remain a state that attracts global employers, we must invest in our young people at scale.

This is a pivotal moment for the state, and our kids and our communities are waiting on us to show up for them. Will we embrace the opportunity to train our workforce and strengthen our communities? Or will we give up on the schools and teachers that have shown remarkable resilience crisis after crisis? The choice is ours. I hope we can stand united on behalf of our youngest North Carolinians for their future and the future of North Carolina.

Dr. Whitney Oakley is the superintendent of Guilford County Schools (GCS), serving more than 68,000 PK-12 students and 10,000 employees at 126 schools. As the district’s first homegrown superintendent, Oakley is a long-time educator and school administrator with a proven track record of improving student learning outcomes.

This article first appeared on EducationNC and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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