With the coronavirus still rampant across North Carolina, the top education concern in many families has little to do with the state’s long-term school investments or with the disadvantages faced by students in economically stressed rural communities.
The big issue in thousands of households has to do with kids trying to learn effectively in online, at-home “classrooms” while parents are forced to balance their job responsibilities – if they still have jobs! – with their involuntary role as de facto teachers’ assistants.
It’s a balancing act necessitated by the risks of virus exposure in confined indoor spaces, which schools certainly are. And the risks apply not only to students themselves, but also to school personnel and even to family members who could end up being infected via chain transmission.
That said, many frazzled parents understandably are on their last nerve. No wonder there’s pressure on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration to gamble on looser standards for school re-opening. And no wonder, during the height of an election season, that Republicans eager to undercut Cooper and his allies are playing to those parental frustrations.
The state Senate’s top Republican, President Pro Tem Phil Berger — along with Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who’s challenging Cooper for re-election — are pushing for all public school students to have the option of full-time, in-person classes. Despite the risks.
Of course there’s an educational benefit to having kids back with their teachers. But Cooper has been prudent in resisting pressure to accelerate the re-opening of schools and businesses before public health data signal that it’s safe. His Sept. 17 announcement that elementary schools will be allowed to re-open full-time as of Oct. 5 clearly took the political heat into account while framing the move as a science-based course correction.
The governor also has argued for more state support for school districts faced with greater costs as they try to carry on with instruction amid the pandemic. The General Assembly indeed has taken some worthwhile steps, such as guaranteeing that school districts won’t have their appropriations cut despite collapsing state revenues and putting up money to improve students’ internet access.
However, legislators missed a chance to use a large chunk of federal pandemic relief funds to help address long-standing public school deficiencies that courts have said amount to constitutional violations. With some $900 million still available from the CARES program enacted by Congress last spring, the Republican-controlled Senate and House this month decided to use about half of it to make $335 payments to each household with children younger than 18.
The idea, embedded in House Bill 1105, was to help offset parents’ additional costs related to virtual, homebound learning. Of course every little bit helps. But spreading small, equal payments among every family with kids – no matter the family’s income, no matter how many kids – seems less like a well-targeted relief plan than a pre-election effort to curry favor with a certain slice of voters.
Berger added to that impression by saying parents needed a break, and that they could take some of the money and treat themselves to a babysitter and a night out. A nice luxury, to be sure – for folks willing to take the risk of going to a restaurant, for example, or who aren’t already three months behind on the rent with an eviction pending.
Most Democrats joined with majority Republicans in supporting the bill. When Cooper signed it on Sept. 4, he said it contained critical funding. But he added that legislators “should have done more to expand Medicaid, support small business, pay our educators, assist with rent and utilities relief and further help unemployed North Carolinians.” The bill’s additional $50 in jobless benefits makes the state’s notoriously tight-fisted unemployment insurance program only slightly less stingy.
Haves and have-nots
If education funding disputes amid the pandemic reflect acute problems, then there are larger, longer-lasting disputes over chronic ills bedeviling North Carolina’s public schools and the students they’re supposed to serve.
The epic Leandro case, which stretches back to the early 1990s, has established in rulings by the state Supreme Court that the state’s public education system is failing to meet its constitutional duty. All students, no matter whether they live in a hoity-toity golf-course enclave or down a boondocks dirt road and no matter which schools they attend, are supposed to have a fair chance to get a “sound basic” education, as defined by the high court. But after a quarter-century and counting, that standard has yet to be reached.
Not that there hasn’t been some progress. Pre-kindergarten programs have been strengthened, for example, and caps on class sizes have been lowered. Additional money has been channeled to school districts with high needs and limited resources. But unacceptable shortfalls in student outcomes remain.
The case remains under court jurisdiction, with Superior Court Judge David Lee of Union County assigned to oversee the state’s efforts to meet its responsibilities. Under Lee’s guidance, an action plan has been developed, with plaintiffs in the suit – parents and school boards in low-wealth counties – reaching agreement with state education officials on the way forward. On Sept. 1, Lee signed a so-called consent order setting forth the agreement’s terms.
As summarized by reporter Greg Childress for N.C. Policy Watch, the directive calls for a $427 million boost in state education spending during the fiscal year that began July 1. That’s in addition to funds provided through the CARES Act. It would represent the first phase of a comprehensive remedial plan unfolding over eight years.
Of the recommended total outlay, $235 million would go toward higher pay for teachers – helping address the need for well-qualified teachers in financially strapped rural counties. Another $145 million would be targeted toward school districts where student performance lags, often districts that serve impoverished communities with high concentrations of minority residents.
Running on fumes
Here’s the catch, however: The legislature, which will have to come up with the money, likely will have turned the state’s pockets inside out trying to maintain a minimum of essential functions in the face of a crushing revenue shortfall. That’s attributable to the pandemic, of course, which has smothered so many facets of the economy and thrown so many people out of work.
Yet it would compound the intertwined health and economic disasters if North Carolina’s young people continue to lose ground in their schooling – even more ground than they’re perhaps destined to lose amid their foray through the brave new world of virtual instruction.
If legislators need any reminders of our public schools’ overall condition, they can consult the latest “Quality Counts” survey from Education Week. The analysis, dated Sept. 1, ranks North Carolina 48th in the nation considering various school spending metrics.
By the magazine’s reckoning, that boils down to an “F.” There’s no good reason North Carolina should be such a laggard – and the Republican fixation on tax breaks for the affluent surely isn’t one.
The N.C. Council of Churches pays close attention to the quality of our schools because education is such a powerful lever in the drive for greater opportunity and fulfillment of our human potential.
Yet when some young people are deprived of an education meeting the quality standard to which they’re entitled, that amounts to an injustice corrosive not only to their hopes for happy, productive lives but also to the health of our society as a whole. It amounts to another form of discrimination against the vulnerable. Conscientious, fair-minded leaders will do what they must to overcome it.