There are few things that stir a dust-up among education advocates like the issue of charter schools. Even among our own board of directors and members of Western North Carolina for Public Education (WNC4PE), we don’t agree on the value and role of charter schools in our communities and our region. But one thing we all can and do agree on is that making our state’s public education budget a scrap heap for different viewpoints to fight over is not just bad public policy – it’s very bad for our children.
That’s exactly what HB539 does. It once again pits traditional public schools and charter schools against one another for funds that are hard-earned and precious. In a nutshell, HB539 would redirect a portion of funds used by traditional public schools to public charter schools during a time when all of North Carolina’s public schools are inadequately funded to meet the diverse needs of all our students.
There is no doubt that there will be vehement argument and outcry on both sides of the debate about HB539, and that debate will mask the true issue at hand: public schools, traditional or charter, in North Carolina are still woefully underfunded.
Yes, the budget just passed included some tiny gains, such as the promised raise for first-time teachers and a stay of execution for thousands of teacher assistant jobs. But the fact remains that North Carolina’s leadership have yet to step up and fulfill their obligations to the taxpayers of the state to provide “a sound basic education.” Not making additional cuts is not the same as making investments.
Let’s put it in perspective. During the 1980s, approximately 43-46% of the state budget was invested in education. As a result, North Carolina led the South as a beacon for quality public education and a place for economic investment. Today, that percentage is only 37%. In real dollars, adjusted for inflation, our total spending on education is hundreds of millions less than it was in 2008, while enrollment continues to grow by the tens of thousands. North Carolina’s rankings in terms of teacher pay and per-pupil investment have plummeted and now hover near the bottom when compared to other states.
Our reduced investment in public schools affects all schools. It makes it harder for teachers across the board to do their jobs effectively. It makes it more difficult for students to get the adult help they need to succeed. That means it will be harder for businesses to find qualified employees, families to earn enough to support themselves, and communities to thrive.
We can do better. We must do better. We need to stop pitting schools against one another and invest more in them across the board. Period. Let’s stop making our schools fight for scraps and invest in our state’s future together.
Amy Wamsley and Lynn Michie are the Co-Chairs of WNC for Public Education — a nonpartisan coalition of concerned citizens, parents and educators across WNC that advocates for public education to ensure all public schools have the financial, instructional, and human resources they need to provide an excellent education for every student.