Activists discuss the harm inadequate public schools funding causes educators, students
Nancy Rogers (Center) speaks at Every Child NC rally.
Inadequate school resources help to fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, says Letha Muhammad, co-executive director of the Raleigh-based Education Justice Alliance.
The lack of school counselors, social workers and other school support staff and funding for restorative justice programs that provide alternatives to harsh discipline policies all help to feed students with discipline problems into the criminal justice system, Muhammad said this week.
The school-to-prison pipeline is the phenomenon in which children are pushed out of school and toward the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Studies show that students of color are more likely to be shoved into the pipeline, even if the offenses they commit are minor.
“We know if the Leandro [Comprehensive] Plan is fully funded, it would release funding to allow for an increase in those types of supports for young people that potentially could dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad made her comments Tuesday just outside of the Legislative Building in Raleigh where members of Every Child NC, a progressive coalition of advocates, had gathered to demand that lawmakers fully fund the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan that grew out of the state’s long-running school funding lawsuit.
After nearly 30 years, the lawsuit remains unsettled even though the North Carolina Supreme Court has on several occasions ruled in favor of the five low-wealth counties that 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 recent years, judges assigned to the case have ordered the state to release hundreds of millions of dollars to North Carolina’s public schools to provide the children with the sound basic education guaranteed under the state constitution. The state’s Republican-led General Assembly, however, has pushed back, contending only it has the authority to order the release of such funds.
Susan Book, the mother of an autistic child and founder of Save our Schools NC, said inadequate school funding places an undue burden on parents with special needs children.
Book said state leaders have the power to adequately fund public schools but refuse to do so.
“What that means for families like mine is that we don’t always have a well-qualified special education teacher in every classroom,” Book said. “We don’t always have resources and services that make access to general education classes possible.”
Several years ago, Book was shocked at what she found while researching private schools for her child.
Some private schools don’t accept children with disabilities, Book said, and others don’t provide services or hire special education teachers. Some schools require parents to pay for therapists and aides and only accept children with certain disabilities or certain levels of disability, she said.
Private schools vouchers like the ones offered in North Carolina are a step backwards for families with disabilities, Book said. Lawmakers are currently weighing legislation (Senate Bill 406) to allow access to the voucher program to the state’s wealthiest families. The program was created for the stated purpose of helping low-income families pay private school tuition to escape low-performing public schools or districts.
“We have laws and regulations to secure the rights of students with disabilities and yet, when we don’t fund public schools, we sabotage the rights of those children,” Book said.
Book called on lawmakers to release funding to implement the Leandro Comprehensive Plan to ensure students have the opportunity to receive the sound basic education they’ve been promised.
“Leandro [funding] isn’t going to solve everything but it’s a damned good start,” she said.
Shaun McMillan, co-founder of Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce (P.A.C.T.) and former teacher, said teachers and students are waiting on relief and support that never seems to come.
“At this very moment our colleagues in North Carolina are settling in to do their best work for today, only to go hours later to a second and third job just to survive,” McMillan said. “These same teachers will come out of pocket to stock classrooms with basic supplies next semester.”
McMillan said that administrators in Cumberland County and others are forced to drive school buses because there aren’t enough drivers and that students must delay visits with counselors, social workers and nurses because multiple schools share them.
“I wish that we were here to celebrate a massive increase in public school spending that focuses on solving the real problems that children, teachers and administrators face every day in North Carolina,” McMillan said. “Instead, we’re here to denounce the [school] privatization scheme that is Senate Bill 406 [school voucher bill].”
He charged that many of the lawmakers who support SB 406 oppose fully funding the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan. The regressive transfer of wealth will lead to greater inequality and disparity, McMillan said.
“It [SB 406] will open up the doors for children of millionaires to compete for vouchers with children whose parents make less than $26,000 a year,” he said.
He noted that some private schools who receive vouchers openly discriminate against LGBTQ and transgender students.
“It stands to deepen the already damaging legacy of segregation and racial inequality in our state,” McMillan said.
School voucher critics have long held 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.
The voucher bill is a “slap in the face” to the original plaintiffs in the Leandro lawsuit, McMillan said, who “for the better part of three decades have been asking legislators to just fully fund public schools in alignment with the findings of Leandro.”
“After failing to provide adequate funding for generations of public school students, how dare you magically find a way to guarantee funding private schools to the tune of an increase of billions of dollars?” McMillan said.
Under SB 406, annual spending on private school vouchers would steadily increase until it reaches $500 million by the 2031-32 school year.
Nancy Rogers, who leads Building Equity in Early Childhood Systems (BEECS) in Edgecombe County, said it’s difficult to attract early childhood teachers in the low-wealth county because of low wages.
A fully funded comprehensive remedial plan would be a game-changer for the families in Edgecombe County, Rogers said said.
“The [state] Supreme Court ordered this funds to be released,” she said. “We’re not fighting for something that has not been approved already.”
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