NC Democrats introduce a ‘Children’s Bill of Rights’

Children's Bill of Rights

Democrats introduced the Children's Bill of Rights at a press conference at the General Assembly last week. NC Rep. Julie von Haefen brought a scroll of more than 230 bills Democrats had introduced sine 2011 to fix the public school crisis. From left: Emerson Pope, 8th grade; Luna Gomez, 4th grade; Erin Lea, 11th grade; von Haefen; Rowan Bilodeau, 10th grade. (Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

By Michael McElroy

May 14, 2024

Democrats say that if they were in charge of the state legislature, every student would have the right to a safe and inclusive school, excellent teachers, and ample resources.

North Carolina Republicans have starved public schools for over a decade, state Democrats say, creating a mess of widespread staff shortages, limited resources, and squandered opportunities. So Democratic leaders gathered on Wednesday alongside public education advocates to introduce a Children’s Bill of Rights, an attempt, they said, to give voice to a demographic that lawmakers often speak for but rarely listen to: children themselves.

“This is my sixth year in the General Assembly and honestly what I’ve seen here in my time in the legislature is a failure to take care of the children of the state,” State Rep. Julie von Haefen (D-Wake) said.

“If there’s one thing we don’t do nearly enough in this building, it’s to listen to the voices of children whose lives we are affecting every day with the decisions that we make,” von Haefen said.

To introduce the Bill of Rights, von Haefen called upon Luna Gomez, a 4th grade student from Durham. But in a model of how the legislature is not built to hear from the children most affected by the laws passed there, when Luna stepped behind the lectern, she disappeared from view. It was too tall, and could not be adjusted.

Staff members got her a chair to stand on. Von Haefen adjusted the mic for her.

And Luna made her voice heard.

‘You too have that power.’

The Bill of Rights is needed, Luna said, because it calls for “a safe and healthy learning environment,” something she worries about a lot.

“I am worried because I noticed the kids in my school are starting to get very violent and physical,” she said. “My school needs a counselor. We need to feel and be safe. We need a counselor to talk with us kids to help solve problems instead of scolding, or suspensions. If there was a counselor to listen to our problems, things could be better.”

The Bill of Rights also promises access to nutritious breakfast and lunch, something that directly affects her classmates, she said.

“Children need good food. Sometimes during lunch or snack, I would pull out some of my food and would share with someone. Some kids’ parents can’t afford food, so they have to depend on school lunch.”

She added: “And don’t forget, school lunch can sometimes be disgusting. No offense, lunch ladies out there—It’s not you. It’s the food quality.”

Luna wasn’t done. The state’s public schools are struggling to find and retain teachers because veteran teacher salaries are among the lowest in the nation. Schools are also struggling to hire nurses and bus drivers.

“I’m tired of buses always being late 30 minutes or more because we don’t have enough bus drivers,” Luna said. “You know what else? Pencils? Yes, you heard me there. Pencils. My class literally ran out of pencils. I have to look and crawl on the floor like a baby to find pencils. When I grow up, I want to be able to change others’ education for the best.”

She called on legislators to listen to her. To hear her. And to do something about it.

“You too have that power,” she said.

The Children’s Bill of Rights

Republicans last year passed several bills that divert millions of dollars from the already underfunded public school system into private school vouchers, in essence giving wealthy families discounts on the private school tuition they already pay. The voucher program boosts a system that doesn’t have to report its test scores and that can openly discriminate against LGBTQ students and students with disabilities.

Republicans also passed the Parents Bill of Rights, which could force teachers to out LGBTQ students to their parents.

The Children’s Bill of Rights is non-binding and is an articulation of ideals, rather than any change in law. It is a list of 10 guarantees Democrats would offer every kid in the state if they were in charge of the legislature. And it is one of more than 230 bills that Democrats have introduced since 2011 to solve the problems that have long plagued the state’s public schools, von Haefen said in the news conference.

Republicans have blocked, buried, or voted against them all.

“Our schools are in crisis, but that crisis did not happen yesterday. It directly results from decisions made by the majority party for over a decade,” she said.

“Last year we passed a bill called the Parents’ Bill of Rights,” von Haefen said: “The children of North Carolina have rights as well.”

Under the full Children’s Bill of Rights, your child has the right to:

  1. High-quality childcare and early childhood education.
  2. An inclusive and accountable public school.
  3. A safe and healthy learning environment.
  4. An excellent teacher.
  5. A supportive principal.
  6. Ample resources for their school.
  7. Access to mental health services and fair discipline.
  8. Nutritious breakfast and lunch.
  9. Fair testing.
  10. Training for education and work opportunities.

‘My voice is important’

Three other students spoke at the press conference with Luna, each of them highlighting a particular challenge that more private school funding simply would not address.

Emerson Pope, an eighth grader at Reedy Creek Magnet Middle in Wake County, has autism. Private schools getting tax payer money are allowed by law to refuse to accept students with disabilities, but public schools cannot. Public schools, however, are often denied the funding they need to hire teachers who can meet all students where they are.

That creates a snarl that often entangles students like Emerson, he said.

“Teachers should know what difficulties students have and incorporate that into the classroom,” Emerson said. “I should feel great in school and have well-respected teachers who understand. My school needs ample resources so they accommodate every student.”

If public schools aren’t given the proper resources, students with disabilities often suffer first and the most.

“Did you know that North Carolina suspends disability children more than any other state?” Emerson said.

“We should hold our schools accountable when it comes to unnecessary discipline,” he said,

“These rights matter to me. My rights matter, my voice is important.”

‘I experienced harassment at school on an almost daily basis’

Rowan Bilodeau, a Wake County 10th grader, is non-binary and said that most of their teachers were great.

“Most of my teachers have been supportive of my identity and accommodating of my needs,” Bilodeau said. “Two of my teachers, in particular, are so amazing at what they do, providing a quality education to all students as well as providing a welcoming and safe space for everyone at school.”

But the Parents Bill of Rights, Bilodeau said, “is an attempt to steal those good experiences from students across the state.”

The law, which requires teachers to alert parents if students ask to change their pronouns, creates a dangerous atmosphere for LGBTQ students, Bilodeau said, both at school and at home.

“No parents should have the right to opt out of their child taking a survey that asks if they feel safe at home,” they said. “Which parents would opt out of that? Parents of kids that would say, no, I don’t feel safe at home. No parent should have the right to opt out of their child learning about sexual abuse and how to stay safe from it.”

Several of the laws Democrats introduced over the last several years, party leaders said, would clarify protections for LGBTQ students and increase both the resources and training for educators to help combat harassment.

“All students deserve to feel safe at school,” Bilodeau said.

‘What I want to be.’

Erin Lea, a high school junior from Orange County, said that all public schools should be like hers.

Her schools have always had ample resources, she said, including Advanced Placement classes, intensive business fairs, agricultural science courses, and specialty training for students interested in interior design, engineering, computer science, forestry, fire safety, and sports medicine.

But those resources have only been available because the county stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the General Assembly’s failure to adequately fund public schools.

Better funding, she noted, would mean that districts could rebuild crumbling schools, remove longstanding mold and other health threats, and increase their offerings for students interested in starting their own businesses, but who weren’t interested in college.

“The classes I’ve been offered have given me so many opportunities to not only explore what changes I want to affect into the—to not only explore what I want to be, but what changes I want to affect into this world.”

When she graduates, Erin said, she wants to be a teacher.

‘When I grow up’

Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature, so they are unlikely to adopt the Children’s Bill of Rights, or any of those other 232 bills during this session either. They are, however, poised to increase voucher funding by nearly $500 million.

To take money from a system that serves all students and give instead to private schools that can discriminate against them, von Haefen said, is “unconscionable.”

That money would go a long way in public schools, Luna said.

In an interview after the press conference, Luna said that if she was in charge of spending that money, she would ensure that no other student had to crawl on the floor for loose pencils, or go hungry during the school day.

“I would spend a lot of it on, well, resources, you know, pencils, erasers, paper, you know, the simple stuff we use every day.”

She would also spend it on “a safe environment, and just [making] everything easier and not so complicated and hard.”

The students deserve it, Luna said. And so do her teachers.

“My teacher, right now, she encourages us a lot to do our best,” Luna said, “so we can become good people when we grow up.”

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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