Last Wednesday, parents, grandparents, and public school supporters across North Carolina got into their cars and headed for Raleigh.
They were on their way to the Department of Public Instruction to present the Superintendent with the results of a survey that asked what everyday North Carolinians want from their public schools. The resounding message from that survey is this: We want our schools to be funded so that every child in North Carolina can succeed.
The fight for better funding for public education in North Carolina is, of course, decades old– our state ranks an embarrassing 50th in our funding efforts for our schools According to the Education Law Center’s most recent report, North Carolina’s funding effort was measured at 2.32 percent of the state’s wealth and 1.28 percent below the national average — the largest negative gap of any state.
In Raleigh, the school advocates unloaded large cardboard apples and worms from their cars and gathered in Freedom Park– many were meeting each other for the first time in person. Among them were some teachers and long-time public education advocates, but most were everyday North Carolinian moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, who love their children and love their local schools and want to see them grow to be even better.
They are all a part of Public School Strong, a growing network of small county-based teams who go to their local school board meetings wearing matching Public School Strong shirts. These local teams sometimes speak out at the meetings and sometimes just observe: They are all looking for ways to help support the local schools in their mission of providing the best education to our large and diverse student needs.
This fall, Public School Strong members have been circulating a survey to their neighbors asking about their neighbor’s experiences with public education and what needs their local schools have. At the time that PSS headed to the Department of Public Instruction, the parents had gathered 1005 survey responses from over 70 North Carolina counties and school districts– and responses continue to come in.
While the responses demonstrate that our schools have locally specific needs and issues– some parents want to see more investment in school libraries, others are concerned that bus transportation is underpaid and understaffed- it is clear that parents across the state believe that schools are in dire need of real funding. And that funding is needed now. Frankly, it was needed yesterday.
However, North Carolina’s public schools are at great risk of losing funding right now due to the recently passed legislation expanding vouchers that will pull public dollars out of public schools and put them in private hands.
Just two months ago, the supermajority in Raleigh pushed through a voucher expansion bill. Now the 2023-25 budget expands voucher funding, adding millions of dollars annually to this dangerous program. By 2031-32, more than $500 million will be allocated to vouchers each year; nearly $5 billion will be spent on private school vouchers by 2032-33.
To be clear: That’s $5 billion taken from public education.
Not only will this rob our public schools of the funds parents are fighting for, but they will not necessarily even benefit the low-income families the “opportunity scholarships” were originally intended for. The original program income limit was 133% of the federal free lunch cutoff– and sold to the public this way. However, this limit was steadily raised until this year, when NCGA now has removed all income limits. In other words, now wealthy families are eligible to receive vouchers to send their children to private schools. That doesn’t feel right becasue that isn’t right.
The survey data Public School Strong delivered on Wednesday finds that parents, grandparents, and educators resoundingly oppose vouchers and want public money to remain in public schools. The majority of North Carolinians care about things like school funding and bus driver positions being filled, not about banning books or limiting what teachers can teach.
Our school boards and the discourse around schools for the last two years have been dominated my a minority of loud voices— and local parents are fed up. The survey results show that parents are much more concerned about issues of school funding than they are about culture war politics. The rapid growth of Public School Strong also demonstrates this: Only six months old, Public School Strong is a growing project of over 500 trained participants in over 60 North Carolina counties.
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