It's been a long decade for public education in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock) NC Public Education Protest
It's been a long decade for public education in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock)

The courts excoriated the state 24 years ago because rural schools aren’t funded like urban schools. The legislature is out of time to make it right. 

The Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled unanimously in 1997 that our state was not providing a “sound, basic education” to all students. But this landmark Leandro ruling is still with North Carolina today.   

Except now our schools are faced with safety issues related to COVID-19 on top of the deep inequities. From county to county, school to school we see deep inequities not only in the quality of education, but in the safety of our children.

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The one thing advocates seem to be in agreement on is that we need to provide in-person instruction. That means making the school building a safe place to learn and work.  

However, we didn’t start off on even ground. 

Even before the pandemic hit, our facilities were not up to the task. The statewide facilities needs survey in 2015 detailed $8.1 billion in needs across the state. Due to lack of NCGA action, we are up to $12.8 billion in facilities needs today.  

Fighting for the Bare Minimum

As parents, we expect a lot out of our public schools. Many show up at school board meetings to advocate for the best for their children.  et we can’t even begin that conversation in North Carolina because we are busy advocating for the bare minimum. 

Parents in North Carolina are trying to get us to the “sound, basic” standard. Not only are we trying to get the bare minimum in funding to support our students, but we are trying to get the bare minimum in safety as well. 

Every month according to state law, school boards have to re-evaluate mask requirements. So as parents we write our comments and those who can show up to meetings. Not for some extraordinary safety measure but again for something basic, a mask to keep us safe.

Teachers, staff, bus drivers, know what it is like to work in these conditions too. Pay raises matter, but so does a healthy working environment. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see staff and teacher shortages. Even before the pandemic our teachers marched downtown Raleigh to let the public know that they were not being respected by state lawmakers.  

While some counties are providing COVID testing and outdoor seating, others are not. We have wealthy PTA fundraising and school foundations trying to fill in gaps in some places.  

Our deep divides between ZIP codes, the essential inequity identified in the Leandro ruling, are getting worse not better. In addition, we have counties that do not have a mask mandate making COVID safety an equity issue as well.

Our state lawmakers have the ability to fix this issue. We have enormous amounts in our unspent fund balance estimated at $6.3 billion.  

The state has underinvested our state revenue, leaving us 49th in the United States when it comes to school funding effort. Federal dollars were never meant to make up for state funding shortages. The American Rescue Plan, like the federal relief packages before it, is meant to provide our state with funds to keep our kids and community safe from a virus and help those impacted by it.

Our state lawmakers need to step up to their constitutional responsibility to provide a sound, basic education to all students. This means funding our schools. This means complying with the Leandro court order.