From AI to school vouchers: hot topics in NC education

Published 5:04 pm Friday, January 26, 2024

Last week, I wrote about how legalized sports betting will have an impact on several universities across North Carolina, since a portion of the revenues will be directed towards those schools’ (sometimes financially-struggling) athletic departments. While I’m not sure gambling is the best way to support our schools, I do appreciate that those additional outside funds mean that the universities can put more of their own funding towards other aspects of providing an education for their students.

(And, as I write this column, the state Lottery Commission finalized a date for mobile sports betting to begin in North Carolina: March 11.)

I’m still thinking about education this week, but I’d like to return my focus back to our K-12 students across the state because there is always an abundance of factors out there that can affect their education. Here is some information from a few news stories (all courtesy of Education NC) that caught my eye recently:

The NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) has released a guidebook for the use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in school. We’re one of only a few states in the country so far that has put together guidance on this subject.

AI has been a hot topic of conversation for the past year because of generative AI tools like ChatGPT becoming available for public use. This is the kind of AI where you enter a prompt and the program generates an image, text, video, or audio based on its own large database. (And, for the record, those databases are often made up of art and writing which has been taken without permission of their original owners.)

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said in a statement, “At NCDPI, we’re committed to preparing our students both to meet the challenges of this rapidly changing technology and become innovators in the field of computer science. We also believe that, when implemented thoughtfully and responsibly, generative AI has the power to revolutionize student learning and better prepare North Carolina’s students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

The guidebook suggests ways to incorporate AI as a “learning tool,” tips on how to feed useful prompts to the programs, and an “acceptable use” scale that includes when you should disclose the use of AI in your work.

The justification for all this, NCDPI says, is that researchers are projecting “AI and machine learning specialists will be the fastest-growing occupation in the next five years” and that more companies are planning to implement the technology as well.

In my opinion, while it’s nice to see NCDPI try to be proactive, I don’t think anyone should be so hasty to jump on the AI bandwagon. As I’ve said in previous columns, I’m not a fan of the technology. I think it has more pitfalls than benefits.

Take translation, for example. You can use AI to do an automated translation from one language to another, but those translations aren’t going to be as accurate or nuanced as a multilingual person would be. Machines don’t always understand idioms or tone or even puns. So a company might try to save money by implementing machine translation, but then they wind up having to hire a person anyway to clean up the mistakes. It would actually save time in the long run to simply have a competent person do the translation work from the beginning instead.

I think it’s fine that NCDPI is attempting to put some rules in place for AI in schools, but I think our students and teachers would benefit more from not learning to be reliant on AI.

Another hot topic in North Carolina education right now is school choice and the “Opportunity Scholarship” vouchers. That program provides government taxpayer funds – typically to lower income families – to help cover tuition at a private school instead.

Supporters say this gives parents more options for their child’s education. Opponents say public schools will suffer because their funding is being redirected to unregulated private schools.

If you missed the news last year, the NC General Assembly added an extensive amount of funding to the Opportunity Scholarship program in the most recent state budget and dropped financial stipulations so that even the wealthiest families could apply for the tuition vouchers.

Education NC has an excellent overview of the history of school vouchers and reasons people are for and against them, but I don’t have the space to cover all that this week. (Perhaps I’ll revisit it next week.)

Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Tuesday that 2024 will be the “Year of Public Schools.” This is his last year in office, and he’s indicated that public education will be his focus for the rest of his term. That includes, he said, calling for a moratorium on private school vouchers until our public schools are fully funded.

In addition to his remarks on school vouchers, Cooper also called for investing in expanded access to pre-K, focus on teacher pay and teacher development, an increase in school supplies, and other initiatives that support public education.

He noted that our state is ranked first in business, but without continued emphasis on education, that may not remain the case in the future. And that’s just one reason why he wants to continue supporting education in North Carolina.

I generally agree with Gov. Cooper’s sentiments here. Education – especially a good education – deserves priority because it is something that everyone needs. And I don’t think the vouchers are the right answer.

For many years and even before I was in this job, I have heard plenty of people speak poorly of our public schools. And, to be fair, our local school districts face a lot of challenges. (I write the school report card article every year – I know the “grades” are often bad.) But the prevailing attitude is to write off our public schools before we even consider improvement.

Nothing will ever change if that’s the stance we take.

So I hope 2024 really is the “year of public schools,” and that more people, including locals as well as policymakers in Raleigh, will not give up on our public school students and teachers just yet.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.