Students, teachers will return to classrooms under conservative rule

By: - August 24, 2023 6:00 am
a school hallway lined by lockers

Photo: Getty Images

In the final minutes of a State Board of Education meeting in early August, Chairman Eric Davis called on supporters of public education to go “all in” for the 1.5 million students who attend North Carolina’s public schools.

Davis’s request came just a couple of weeks before Republicans overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes of several education bills. Now enacted into law, these measures will dramatically change how  teachers interact with students and how charter schools — a centerpiece of state conservatives’ school choice movement — are governed in North Carolina.

Davis described the status of public education in a short, poignant message:

Eric Davis
State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis – Photo: Greg Childress

“The events in Raleigh this year have made it clear that there’s now no middle ground in public education in North Carolina – either you’re for our students or you’re not,” Davis said. “And if you’re for our students, we must be all in for all of our students, and their teachers, and their principals, and their schools.”

The legislative “events” in Raleigh that Davis strategically addressed will serve as the policy backdrop as North Carolina’s teachers and students return to K-12 schools next week.

North Carolinians are deeply divided over how the state’s public schools should be managed. There is, as Davis said, little common ground about school choice and  what can be taught about racism, sexuality and LGBTQ issues.

Veto overrides

The Republican-led General Assembly’s override of the so-called “Parents’ Bill of Rights” (Senate Bill 49) requires educators to tell parents if a child decides to change pronouns or use a different name at school. It is a top concern for educators who worry that LGBTQ students without supportive parents might face harm if teachers are forced to “out” students to parents.

Justin Parmenter
Justin Parmenter – Photo: Clayton Henkel

Charlotte educator Justin Parmenter, who blogs about education issues at Notes from the Chalkboard, says teachers are worried that the new law will damage student and teacher relations.

“One concern I have is certainly how to best accommodate children who do not have a supportive parent or guardian at home, but it’s also just the burden of having one more time consuming task added to plates that are already overflowing,” Parmenter said.

School districts are scrambling at the busiest part of the year to put processes in place for notifying parents if their child wants to be called anything other than their official name on the roster, Parmenter said. “That means not only transgender children but also anyone who even wants to go by a nickname such as Johnny instead of John,” he said.

Catherine Truitt
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt – Photo: feed

Educators concerned about the override of the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” won’t find a sympathetic ear in the State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office. Superintendent Catherine Truitt tweeted this message shortly after lawmaker’s overrode Cooper’s veto of the bill:

As a former public school teacher and parent of three, I see the Parent’s Bill of Rights as a key way to open lines of communication between schools and parents so that parents remain a primary part of the conversation regarding their child’s academic, health, and overall wellbeing. This bill is about empowering, equipping, and informing parents so they can determine how to best advocate for their child and will give them greater confidence in how their child is learning, growing and excelling in North Carolina’s public schools.”

Educators’ concerns about the rights of LGBTQ students and whether they can teach students the truth about America’s racist past come amid transformative times for public schools in North Carolina. And last week’s veto overrides, helped state Republican’s to put an indelible conservative stamp on that ongoing transformation.

In addition to the Parents’ Bill of Rights, state lawmakers overrode vetoes of bills that block minors from having access to gender-affirming healthcare, limit female transgender students’ participation in middle school, high school and college sports, and restrict what can be taught about issues regarding gender and sexual assault.      

Progressive Democrats see such laws as attacks on LGBTQ students. These elected officials also lament that the controversial bills, when coupled with other divisive culture war issues, have muffled discussions about the state’s teacher and bus driver shortages that still threaten to disrupt the school year. Next week hundreds of thousands of students who attend schools on traditional school calendars return to classrooms.

Despite a standing legal obligation, there has been little public discussion among Republican leaders about the state’s long-running school funding lawsuit, the Leandro case. In late 2022, the state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to transfer millions of dollars to pay for a comprehensive school improvement plan to bring North Carolina into compliance with its constitutional mandate to provide students with sound, basic education.

Nearly two full months into the new state fiscal year and with no new state budget in place, however, there is little evidence that legislative leaders intend to abide by the directive.

Zach Hawkins
Rep. Zack Hawkins – Photo:

“Every child in North Carolina deserves a sound, basic public education, every teacher that walks into the classroom should be able to guarantee that,” Rep. Zack Hawkins, D-Durham, said during a recent news conference.

The Leandro case began nearly three decades ago when school districts in 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.

Staffing shortages

The Wake County Public School System’s bus driver shortage has been widely reported by local media. The state’s largest school district has 560 drivers but needs at least 300 more to reach full staffing. The district has asked parents to consider bringing their children to school instead of putting them on buses.

In smaller districts like Moore County, the Board of Education is renewing bus driver bonuses that started last school year to ensure routes are covered. After the board approved those bonus, some drivers had pay increases of up to $250 a month.

“The superintendent [Tim Locklair] has recommended $150,000 be set aside in the new budget for incentives,” said Jennifer Purvis, the district’s assistant superintendent for operations, told NC Newsline. “However, we will not be able to begin any incentives until the final budget is approved at the county level with commissioners. We are committed to putting some incentives in place once that budget is approved.”

Teacher pay raises are stalled because lawmakers have not passed a budget. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, has said there is “zero” chance that a budget will be approved before Sept. 1. Budget proposals submitted by the House, Senate and Cooper all include teacher raises, but at widely varying levels.

Dan Blue
Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue – Photo:

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue blasted the General Assembly’s Republican leadership for failing to pass a budget in a tweet posted after last week’s successful veto overrides.

“The Senate was not convened to pass a long-overdue sate budget, remedy the teacher shortage, address the lack of school bus drivers, expand access and affordability of healthcare, or deliver economic relief to working families across North Carolina,” Blue said. “Instead, Senate leadership returned to once again wade into the culture wars and placate the far right of their party’s base by overriding the Governor’s vetoes.”

North Carolina began last school year with a shortage of around 5,000 teachers. Some lawmakers have said the deficit will be about the same this year, although NC Newsline has not yet been able to independently confirm that number.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.