Opinion: Rural communities would suffer the most if NC Republicans expand their school voucher program

North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger, left, speaks alongside House Speaker Tim Moore at a news conference about a Medicaid expansion agreement, Thursday, March 2, 2023, at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

By Lindsey Prather

May 20, 2024

NC lawmakers are rapidly expanding publicly-funded funded vouchers for private schools while public schools remain underfunded. A North Carolina lawmaker dishes on who has the most to lose.

Last month, I had the honor of participating in Bring Your Legislator to School Day in Buncombe County. This annual event began in 2023 as a bipartisan effort to bring policymakers face-to-face with students and educators, and to better understand how our policies affect our public schools.

I was invited to visit Ira B. Jones Elementary School and Asheville Middle School – I had an amazing time. We toured the schools, talked to students, and even ate lunch in the cafeteria! It really brought me back to my time in the classroom.

The joy, curiosity, and engagement I saw in the students that day made me miss being a teacher. It also reminded me why investing in our public schools is such an important part of our job as legislators, and how our state government has failed to uphold its end of the bargain over the past few decades.

Despite reckoning with diminishing resources and an increasingly hostile state government, my county’s schools are doing amazing things for our children. We have a local government that can afford to supplement education funding through their local budget – but the vast majority of school systems in North Carolina aren’t as lucky.

A recent study by The Public School Forum of North Carolina found that our poorest counties not only lack the ability to fund their schools, they also have higher taxes than wealthier counties that can better afford to pay for their schools. When the state government neglects its financial duties to schools, the burden falls onto county governments to close the gap.

Over 80% of students in North Carolina attend public schools, and year after year, surveys have shown that parents are overwhelmingly satisfied with their child’s school. But they also express the desire for our state to invest more in those schools – in teacher pay, building and safety upgrades, and mental health services. Those needs, by the way, are evidenced by the very thorough Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, which has been affirmed by our state courts multiple times.

Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly insist they’ve been increasing spending on education – but when you look at the numbers, they don’t add up. Teacher raises have not kept up with inflation, and NC is now in the bottom 10 states in the country for both starting teacher pay (42nd) and average teacher pay (41st). We are dead last in the percentage of our state GDP that goes to public K-12 schools. And don’t get me started on the stagnation in cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for our retired teachers.

Now, Republicans are pushing to expand voucher spending by an additional $463 million for the next school year alone, accomplished in part by removing the maximum income cap for voucher applicants.

In just the first year under this plan, public schools in Buncombe County could lose more than $5.5 million in public education funding. Here, the public school system is the third largest employer. It’s Buncombe County residents and parents who teach and work in our schools – our own neighbors and friends. A financial impact of that size has a ripple effect throughout our whole community, and it’s happening in every county across NC.

While more populated counties are more likely to have private schools that accept vouchers, smaller and rural counties look much different. There are 16 counties in NC that have 0 or 1 private school that accepts taxpayer-funded vouchers. Even if those families receive a voucher, they likely won’t be able to use it in their own community.

Many schools that do accept vouchers also have strict admissions policies, including requiring students to be of a certain religious denomination or even above a certain IQ. The vast majority of North Carolinians oppose giving taxpayer money to private religious schools that are legally allowed to discriminate against our children.

North Carolina has a long, proud tradition of strong public schools. Heck, we’ve got the first public university in the nation in Chapel Hill. When we had the best public education system in the South, it wasn’t because the teachers were smarter or the students were better behaved. It was because we invested in the education system. We can do that again, we just have to make that choice.

Author

  • Lindsey Prather

    Rep. Lindsey Prather has served the 115th District since 2023. A proud educator and working class Representative, Rep. Prather taught Special Education and US History in Buncombe County before deciding to run for office. After being elected in 2022, she has been a leader in supporting public education, reproductive rights, and protecting the environment. She’s running for re-election so she can continue to be a strong voice for the mountains in the State House.

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