Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, has clear ideas about how public education should be reformed in North Carolina, but he’s counting on parents across the state to help redefine public education for the next century.
“The public education system in North Carolina was developed over 100 years ago and it has served us well,” Torbett told the Carolina Journal. “However, if we were creating a new system from scratch, what would we do? What would we change? What would we keep? This is what we need parents to help us meet so that we can meet the educational needs of future generations.
An engineer by trade, Torbett knows how to divide and tackle complex and intricate challenges. He once did to help modernize the US armed forces. As Vice President of Business Development for Defense Technology, Torbett played a key role in enabling the unmanned combat efforts that are essential in today’s U.S. military.
Torbett is chairman of a new statehouse committee, the House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future, charged with studying how to design an education system for North Carolina’s future. Torbett is also a home builder. He sees this educational reform effort as building a house. Start from scratch, build a solid foundation, focus on the basics and create a design that meets the needs of the individual.
“We have the same fights over and over and we’re not making the kind of progress that we need to be making,” Torbett said. “We need to shift the focus away from the system and put it on parents, teachers and students.”
The nine-member committee met for the first time recently. The committee intentionally does not include professional educators. Torbett told the committee to consider creating an education system if one did not already exist in the Tar Heel State.
“What would you do to help create a process to educate the children of North Carolina so that they are better able to meet their needs when they come out?” asked Torbett.
Committee members talked about improving reading levels, preparing non-college students for the working world.
Torbett tells the Carolina Journal that the state needs to consider whether age-based grade levels still make sense. He believes that schools with the right tools can track student progress on a weekly or even daily basis to see what students are learning, how they are learning and if they need help. Torbett plans to look at flexible scheduling options that parents could choose.
As a freshman state representative, Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, brings a unique perspective to the committee. It does not come with the scars of past partisan education battles. His profession is commercial construction, and he too is relying on this experience to build a new education system that meets the individual needs of students.
“I think the one big thing that’s come out of covid is the attention the education system is getting now because every parent has had to be involved in their child’s education,” Zenger told the Carolina Journal. “I would like us to look at how we can make the education system responsive to the consumer, the parent. I would like to see how we can provide as many options as possible so that parents can give their children the best education to prepare them for life. “
“The main focus I would like the committee to address is how we can develop an education system that works for every child,” Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, told the Carolina Journal. “Keeping in mind that one size fits all doesn’t work. Prior to the pandemic, more than 60% of African American children in our public schools were considered academically failing or failing. Our current system is not working for them. There is no Republican or Democratic answer to these questions. And only by working together can we begin to effectively find a solution.
“The teacher pipeline is an issue that I would really like us to address head-on,” said Rep. Brian Farkas, D-Pitt. “How can we truly inspire the next generation of such a critical workforce”
The committee will soon hold hearings across the state, giving parents from all walks of life the opportunity to weigh in and shape the future of education in North Carolina.
As local coordinator for the John Locke Foundation, Kelly Mann works to engage parents and mobilize them to impact education policy. She says the committee’s public hearings can help meet the growing demand from parents to engage policymakers on what and how their children are being taught.
“Covid has awakened a sleeping giant,” Mann said. “Many parents who previously had blind faith in educational institutions now want to directly influence the way our children are taught. They want to take politics out of the classroom. They want parent and student centered education. This committee can meet the needs of parents who want to get involved.
The committee will meet on February 7 at 1 p.m. and will hear State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt and Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson.