Public school advocates rally against vouchers, demand adequate funding
Rep. Julie von Haefen (left) and Sen. Rachel Hunt (right) – Photo: Greg Childress
Democratic state lawmakers and members of Every Child NC on Tuesday demanded that the Republican-led General Assembly fully fund Years Four and Five of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan and stop a proposal to allow North Carolina’s wealthiest families access to the state’s controversial school voucher program.
In a news conference, Sen. Rachel Hunt, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, said GOP lawmakers have spent the past 10 years undermining the state’s system of public education. “They have prioritized tax cuts for corporations and wealthy North Carolinians over funding working families’ education,” Hunt said. “They have shown us who they are and what they value.”
The GOP is “anti-public education, anti-teacher and anti-student,” Hunt said. “We have to look no further than the Senate budget, which proposes an additional $2.23 billion over the next 10 years to private school vouchers; a budget that proposes an average teacher raise of 3.7% despite inflation rising 6.5% over the biennium.”
The press conference came a day after the Senate released a budget calling for a 4.5% average teacher pay raise over two years. The budget would bump starting teacher pay to $39,000 annually. First year teachers currently earn $37,000 a year.
Meanwhile, Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal includes an 18% teacher raise over the biennium. And the budget approved by the House in April called for raises of 10.2% over the two-year budget cycle. Teachers would receive a 5.5% pay increase the first year, with the remainder coming in year two.
The Senate’s budget also includes $1.2 billion in tax cuts over two years.
“This is a strong budget that addresses our state’s needs without breaking the bank,” Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican, said in a statement. “We increase spending where it is needed, bolster our reserves in light of economic uncertainty, and give money back to the hardworking people of North Carolina.”
NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly issued a statement Tuesday critical of the Senate’s budget.
“The greatest need for experienced and successful educators exists in communities with the least amount of resources to supplement salaries and we will never resolve these conditions by lowering taxes on the wealthy and sending public funds to private schools,” Kelly said.
Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Democrat from Wake County, said that Republicans are pushing the “most radical defunding of public education” in North Carolina’s history. The Senate’s budget would cut funding for public schools by 2.2% while handing over $2.2 billion to private schools through the voucher programs, she said.
Von Haefen and other school voucher critics complain that the private schools that receive taxpayer money engage in religious indoctrination and exclusion, discriminate against LGBTQ students and parents, and are not held accountable for academic outcomes the way charter schools and traditional public school are.
Vouchers also divert money and other resources from already underfunded public schools, the critics contend. Under the proposed legislation, annual spending on private school vouchers would steadily increase until it reaches $500 million by the 2031-32 school year.
Von Haefen compared GOP-backed public education legislation to House Bill 885, which she co-sponsored. The bill requires the General Assembly to fully fund Years Four and Five of the Leandro Comprehensive plan.
“This is where we can see clearly the priority differences between Democrats and Republicans for education,” she said. “Republicans insist that their policies promote student and parental choice but their decade-long refusal to comply with court-orders to fund our public schools is depriving the children who have chosen to go to public school their constitutional right to a sound basic education.”
The comprehensive plan grew out of the state’s long running Leandro school funding case. Nearly three decades ago, five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties joined Halifax County in the lawsuit.
In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.
The state’s Republican leadership has long held that the court does not have the authority to order the legislature to pay for the remedial plan.
But as recently as November, the court upheld a lower court ruling that ordered the state to turnover $1.7 billion to pay for two years of the school improvement. That amount was adjusted downward to $677.8 million after items funded in previous budgets were factored into cost projections.
State Controller Nels Roseland refused, however, to turn over the money without authorization from the General Assembly, and to this point, the court has issued no additional directives.
On Tuesday at a rally outside of the General Assembly, Roseland was the target of Renee Sekel, a Cary parent, who wants Gov. Cooper to remove him. The coalition took a letter to Cooper urging him to address Roseland’s refusal to obey the court’s order.
“Mr. Roseland is now the only person standing in between North Carolina’s children and a bare minimum level of funding that they deserve,” Sekel said.
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