(Cross-posted from the editorial page of the Fayetteville Observer).
By Russell Baggett
Seventeen years ago this week, I was preparing for my first day at Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville. I was a relatively new kid in town. I was nervous – about fitting in with my classmates, about my clothes, about my classes, about just getting by.
Students across the state are feeling these same anxieties this week as they start the new school year, but many North Carolina parents are feeling anxious for a completely different set of reasons. Their kids are returning to public schools that have been forced to make some pretty drastic changes because of state budget cuts in recent years.
Much has been made about the loss of teaching positions since the start of the Great Recession, and a lot of numbers have been thrown around to support one political party’s argument or the other’s. It is an indisputable fact that there are thousands fewer teachers in North Carolina today than there were in 2008. With so many teachers and teaching assistants having been pushed out of the classroom, schools are now contending with more students while fewer educators are providing them with the time and attention necessary for a quality educational experience.
But what should be equally troubling, and which isn’t getting nearly as much attention, are the state’s disinvestments in just about every other aspect of public education – from funding dropout prevention programs for at-risk students to ordering up-to-date textbooks, all the way down to the cleanliness of classrooms. Scaling back fundamental services may put school systems in a position to survive massive state funding reductions, but these actions certainly won’t enable them to thrive.
It’s not an alarmist position to think that real damage is being done to public education in North Carolina as a result of these kinds of cutbacks. And the damage isn’t equally felt. Sure, all school districts are being asked to do more with less. But some, mostly urban systems, have been able to avoid major layoffs and endure by sacrificing nearly everything else. In rural parts of the state, however, school districts are faring worse.
Gaston County schools recently cut 100 positions, Edgecombe cut 57 jobs, Rowan-Salisbury cut 40. Our rural and low-income communities don’t have the resources or tax base to weather these budget decisions that hamper their ability to deliver a quality education to young people and prepare them for success. The result is both an unequal impact and an unequal education.
North Carolinians don’t believe that education should be available only to those born in a certain place, or that it should be high-quality for some but not all. That is why the push to “fix education” in North Carolina, without attention to the need to invest, is so disheartening. When teachers don’t have the opportunity to build their skills and learn the latest techniques through professional development opportunities, or when they don’t have the technology or even basic textbooks to teach lessons, it is difficult to imagine a “fix” that can deliver a high-quality education for all.
This debate shouldn’t be about what happened under Democratic or Republican control. It should be about how, in recent years, North Carolina has largely abandoned its commitment to adequately fund public education, and how now is the time to renew it.
One way to start that process is by ending the so-called “small-business tax break” that is actually a giveaway to every single profitable business in the state, large or small. This credit is costing North Carolina $336 million annually – enough to make up this year’s K-12 education cuts. Profitable corporations have absolutely no need for an extra $3,500 tax credit, nor will they create jobs with those dollars. Voiding this unnecessary break for wealthy corporations is one reasonable solution that can get us heading back in the right direction.
I’m 31 years old now, and as this school year starts for so many kids, I’m nervous all over again. But not about classes or clothes. I’m nervous that the decisions our legislators have made in recent years will shortchange a generation of North Carolinians. Our goal should be to produce world-class public schools so that all children have the opportunity to thrive in the future, and we should be providing more for these institutions than just enough resources to scrape by. Unfortunately, one lesson kids all over the state might learn firsthand this school year, and in years to come, is the vast difference between thriving and just surviving.