Why aren’t our legislators supporting public education?

Published 3:56 pm Friday, May 26, 2023

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Earlier this year, I wrote a column about keeping an eye on what our politicians are doing to support education in North Carolina. I believe education should be a top priority because it plays such a large role on everyone’s lives.

Education is the key to the future, starting from learning the basics as we first step foot into a school with a backpack on our shoulders to building up skills for future careers as we turn the tassels on our graduation caps. Education gives people the means to think critically with a wide base of knowledge as they navigate life.

It’s no secret that our educational system isn’t perfect. So it makes sense that it needs sufficient support in order to improve. Funding, of course, plays a large role in that support, and a large chunk of that comes from state allocations.

Gov. Cooper and the NC House have already put forth their budget proposals for the next two years, and the NC Senate unveiled theirs last week. Now the three sides will work on a compromise to narrow it down to one budget for adoption. (But given that Republicans control both the House and the Senate, it’s unlikely that Cooper’s proposal will get much traction.)

While there are positives and negatives to every budget proposal, the Senate’s version seems to be the least favorable to our public education system.

A lot of focus is going to teacher pay raises. Cooper proposed at least 10 percent in raises, while the House submitted a 5.5 percent average raise proposal. The Senate’s raise proposal was 4.5 percent average spread out over the next two years.

While any raise is better than none, the Senate’s proposal doesn’t look like it’ll discourage teachers from searching for better pay elsewhere.

Another disappointment is that the Senate doesn’t include expanding the NC Teaching Fellows program, which provides college tuition for teaching majors with the stipulation that they teach in North Carolina after graduation for a certain number of years.

If the goal is to retain more teachers in North Carolina, the Fellows program seems like a good one to invest in.

But the part of the Senate’s budget I’m most concerned about is the large increase to the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides public taxpayer dollars to cover tuition costs at private schools. As noted by EdNC, this budget proposal calls for increasing funds to the scholarship Fund Reserve over the next 15 years, bringing the total up to $505 million. Their plan allocates $27 million more to the Opportunity Scholarship than their proposed teacher salary schedule.

Proponents of the program say it’ll provide parents with more school choices when their local public schools are failing.

But that’s the part I take issue with because it sounds like they’ve given up on the public schools entirely. If the schools are failing, then the legislature should be working on providing support to fix those problems. But they’ve repeatedly refused to do so.

To me, expanding the Opportunity Scholarship sounds like this: imagine you are an owner of a restaurant chain and you have lots of locations to oversee. Some of your restaurants, however, are not doing great. The sanitation grade posted by the door might make most customers turn around and leave.

But instead of investing time and money into fixing the problems, you give people money to go eat at the restaurant next door, even though you have no idea whether that place is better or worse than your own.

Kind of silly, isn’t it?

Why are our legislators handing out money to go somewhere else, when they could be investing that money in saving those “failing” schools?

I’m not arguing that private schools are bad, by the way, or that the people who utilize the scholarship program are making a bad decision. I just mean that public schools are a public service our state is supposed to provide. If we’re paying taxes that are meant to go to public schools, then they ought to go to the public schools!

It’s not clear yet what the full impact of expanding the scholarship program would be. But it’s possible it could reduce public school funding even further by drawing away more students from their local districts. Public schools do receive some of their funds based on the number of students they have, so a reduction – especially for small districts like we have locally – can lead to funding shortfalls and strained budgets.

And if you want to see what a budget shortfall looks like, look at the recent reporting from my editor, Cal Bryant, on the problem currently facing Gates County Public Schools. In a discussion between the Gates County school board and commissioners, Commissioner Board Chair Dr. Althea Riddick noted that the local funding increase requested by the local school board would require a nine-cent hike on the county’s property tax rate. But no decision has been made yet on how to address the shortfall.

When funding from the state falls short, it’s up to our local taxpayers to shoulder the burden. And with a declining and aging population in the Roanoke-Chowan area, that burden can sometimes be too heavy to bear.

Every year I put together an article on the school performance grades for our four-county area, and the results often deem our districts as “low performing.” Last year, Bertie County Superintendent Dr. Otis Smallwood said he disagreed with the idea that their schools are low performing.

“That is a state designation and not one that we believe in at the local level. As I walk through the buildings and witness the great things that are happening in the classrooms, I have not witnessed a low-performing child,” Smallwood said.

I’ve visited many schools locally to cover a wide range of articles over the past few years, and I have to agree with Dr. Smallwood. There are indeed problems to address, but nothing that is beyond repair.

As the state legislature continues to decide on funding details for the new budget, I urge them to reconsider their stance on education and provide students and teachers with the support they deserve.

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