NC Senate leader Phil Berger in a 2016 file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Phil Berger
NC Senate leader Phil Berger in a 2016 file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Why NC’s most powerful lawmaker, whose leadership has been disastrous for public schools, should stay far away from any equity-based arguments on reopening during coronavirus.  

This past weekend, Sen. Phil Berger unveiled his new alter ego, one that cares about public school equity, in an opinion piece making the case for reopening schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Berger, the head of the NC Senate, arguably the most powerful elected official in the state, even gave a nod to the Leandro case, a long-running state court case that found NC had failed to fund a “sound, basic education” for all, regardless of zip code or income. Berger repeated his claims in a Tweet Monday

To everyone’s surprise, the senator, who all but dismissed last year’s court-ordered Leandro report, is now calling the task of meeting Leandro “essential work.”

It is, of course, essential work, but sometimes we must consider the source.

Berger wants the public to believe that he’s losing sleep over students who, without the opportunity for in-person instruction, “will be stuck in poverty and robbed of the opportunity for success in life.”

Speaking of robbing, Berger conveniently neglected to mention that over the past decade he’s been chief architect of countless policies that have robbed our public schools of the resources they need to meet the needs of those students who are stuck in poverty — and let’s be clear that we’re primarily talking about students of color.

Nobody’s buying Senator Phil Berger’s crocodile tears on behalf of impoverished students. 

A Decade of Punishing Cuts

Under Berger’s leadership, North Carolina’s state legislature has repeatedly cut taxes for individuals and corporations, primarily to the benefit of our state’s wealthiest shareholders and individuals.

According to the Budget and Tax Center, a project of the progressive NC Justice Center, as of the last round of rate reductions North Carolina has $3.6 billion less per year in revenues than it would have had otherwise.  Those are dollars that could have gone toward opportunities for success in life for North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school students.

Berger has been at the helm for budget cuts that have resulted in the loss of 7,500 teaching assistants and reductions in funding for textbooks, technology, and school supplies.  He’s helped double the number of charter schools in the state, at the same time deepening economic and racial segregation in those schools and widening their racial achievement gap.  

He has diverted tens of millions of annual dollars to unaccountable private schools through a voucher system, money which is sorely needed by our state’s traditional public schools.  He’s consistently blocked efforts to put a school construction bond on the ballot, despite billions of dollars in identified building needs.

Senator Berger’s striking disregard for the well-being of North Carolinians who are stuck in poverty is also apparent in his repeated refusal to allow North Carolina to join the 38 other states that have expanded Medicaid, even at a time when COVID-19 is ravaging our population.

So please forgive North Carolina’s educators if we don’t buy Berger’s professed concern for those who lack financial resources.  Our schools have been struggling to meet their needs without our own resources for the better part of a decade due to his backwards priorities.

He needs to focus on providing the resources our schools need while we wait for COVID-infection rates to fall.

Leandro is not there just when it is politically convenient to the senator. It is a responsibility in all years, even the ones without elections. 

Here are some actions that Senator Berger can take which might change some minds along those lines:

*Expand Medicaid.  Using available federal funds to expand Medicaid would provide health care coverage to more than 600,000 North Carolinians.  Taking that step during a pandemic should be a no-brainer.

*Tackle the issue of broadband access.  Even before COVID-19, access to K-12 education was increasingly reliant on high-speed internet.  If we’re really serious about a “sound basic education” being the right of every child, it shouldn’t depend on a family’s ability to pay a Spectrum cable bill.

*Commit to providing the resources that public schools need to reopen safely.  As of this writing, 47 school districts have elected to begin the new school year in remote learning mode.  Many of them are seeing frighteningly high COVID infection rates in their communities, but they also know that they don’t have the resources it would require to open under Plan B and adhere with complete fidelity to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ reopening guidelines.  How can we appropriately handle symptomatic students when we have nurses that rotate between five schools, one day a week?  How are we supposed to cover extended COVID-related teacher absences when we’re offering substitutes — many of whom are at high-risk ages — only $80 a day?  

These problems and many others caused by insufficient K-12 funding predate the COVID pandemic.  But the sad reality is that now that lack of resources, driven in large part by Senator Berger’s undervaluing of public education, makes it impossible to reopen schools in a manner that doesn’t put our students at unacceptable risk of contracting a deadly virus.

Berger’s opinion piece also repeated the now-debunked talking point that children don’t transmit the virus as readily as adults.  

Initial studies on this topic were small and flawed, but a new study of nearly 65,000 subjects in South Korea which is being praised by experts for its scale and rigor found that COVID carriers ages 10-19 infected others at even higher rates than adults.

Children below age 10 were roughly half as likely as adults to transmit the virus, but researchers cautioned young children “may show higher attack rates when school closure ends, contributing to community transmission of COVID.”

On Friday, Center for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield told reporters that COVID hot spots — defined as communities where percent positivity rate exceeds 5% — should consider reopening decisions carefully.  

Just a day earlier, President Trump conceded that “cities or states that are current hot spots” might need to keep schools closed.  It was a major about-face for a man who just two weeks ago was threatening to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t reopen.

North Carolina’s statewide positive test rate stands at 9%, and Mecklenburg County is hovering around 11%.

We all agree that there is no substitute for in-person instruction, and that North Carolina’s schools are where our children need to be.  However, our current circumstances do now allow many North Carolina districts to open in a way that sufficiently prioritizes safety of our students and staff.

While we wait for mitigation efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, Sen. Berger should take his newfound desire to level the playing field for our students of color and devote it to allocating the resources we need not just to keep our students safe during the pandemic, but to provide them with the sound basic education that Berger admits is their right.