Public education in North Carolina is at a crossroads.
While it has become fashionable to always paint a negative picture of the public school system’s hopes in this state, now seems like an especially difficult time.
Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation which mandated that school districts must significantly reduce their K-3 class sizes. Lawmakers cited research from the Center for Public Education, which provided support for this move.
While the legislature’s intentions were noble, the bill did little to solve the long-standing problem of how to ensure that all children — particularly those who are from low-income families — receive the quality education that they deserve.
After the bill’s passage, many school districts voiced concern.
Linda Welborn, a member of the Guilford County Board of Education, noted that “we would have to make such drastic cuts, we literally don’t know where we would come up with the money.”
Welborn’s comment in many ways sums up the ages-old relationship that the North Carolina General Assembly has maintained with school districts over the years.
Eager to serve constituents who have brought the issue to their attention, the legislature proposes a plausible idea for how the state might better ensure that the quality of education for students increases.
Then, after looking at the proposal, the school districts will usually say something to the effect of “Sounds great, but give us more money so that we can make it happen.”
But the legislature for the most part has not made good on that request and that presents a serious problem.
As districts endeavor to reallocate resources in order to comport with the mandate, at least 5,500 teaching jobs statewide are in jeopardy.
According to Katherine Joyce, the executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, the next few weeks are “crunch time” for school districts who are deciding on what their budgets will look like for next year.
“It’s a difficult position our districts are in,” Joyce remarked. “They don’t want to initiate the pink slip process, but I think they’re coming to that time where it’s going to become a reality.”
As Joyce explains, time is running out for school districts all across the state.
But it is not too late for a change.
Welborn and many others have spent the past few days imploring the General Assembly to change course and all those who are concerned about the wellbeing of North Carolina’s school districts should do the same.
“To continue going down this road is not helping children,” Welborn warned.
Everyone in North Carolina wants to make sure that children in this state receive the best education that they can, most of all the school districts themselves.
Therefore, the North Carolina General Assembly should listen to those who are closest to the issue and reconsider the K-3 class size mandate.
Moreover, they would also do well to provide more funding to the public schools that they claim to care about so much.
As of 2015, North Carolina ranks 47th in the nation in teacher pay and 46th in per-pupil funding.
As someone who has worked in the North Carolina public school system, I have talked to a number of educators who have told me that even well-meaning and compassionate teachers will leave North Carolina in order to pursue a job that pays better.
While class size is certainly an issue that needs to be analyzed, the real crisis is the dismally low amount of money that the General Assembly allocates to its public school system.
The legislature therefore has two options: either increase funding for the districts or reconsider the K-3 mandate.
The latter is probably the more likely scenario, but even that prospect looks relatively bleak.
Yet if the General Assembly wants to do what is best for school districts, the latter option is exactly what they have to choose.