When the country was in the grips of the Great Recession over a decade ago, public education in this state took some of the biggest cuts in funding – cuts that were never really restored as the economy regained momentum and rebounded. One only has to see the level of per-pupil expenditures in 2019-2020 compared to 2007-2008 when adjusted for inflation.
Even as the state was “enjoying” budget surpluses, an “economic boom,” and population growth in the last few years, people like Phil Berger and Tim Moore made sure to allow that the cuts to public education made during the Great Recession become the norm. They kept that reality cloaked under a veil of reform and political spin. Add to that massive tax cuts to corporations in this state that have benefitted a few rather than all in this state. Minimum wage continues to be at the federal “minimum,” Medicaid still has not been expanded, and over 20% of our public school students are at or below the poverty level.
And then we have this pandemic. For the sake of not spreading the virus, the state shut down school buildings, went remote, and we are still trying to get COVID-19 testing to a point where we can really ascertain the actual number of infections.
North Carolina was not prepared to go virtual on such a large scale in March. But we did it. Teachers, educators, and other classified employees still adapted and made learning possible. Schools still fed and provided community support where others could not.
This coming “summer break” for students will be full of many questions – questions that really have no concrete answers – yet. But we must be willing to not only find ways of framing the questions, we must be willing to boldly find answers. So here is a question: How are we going to be able to create the safest environment possible for our students and still give them the best opportunity of learning if schools physically open up this fall?
And here’s a bold answer: it starts by investing in public schools.
Yes, invest more money in public schools.
Notice that it is not “spending” but “investing.”
“But we don’t have the money!” Actually, we can get the money to invest. Rep. Tim Moore has already talked about it.
Now, one has to take what Tim Moore says with not just a grain of salt, but an entire salt block. He usually proposes what sounds like “friendly” and bi-partisan solutions to problems knowing full well that his counterpart in the NC Senate (Phil Berger) will probably obliterate it. It is kind of a “good-cop / bad cop” routine that has been playing out for years.
But what Moore suggests in this tweet is something to consider heavily for schools as a means of investing in our students: investments that will pay incredible dividends for years to come. And we have seen what damage not investing in our students has caused so far, even in the last eight years. In our recent economic boom, public schools have seen more students per class, buildings starting to erode, unfunded mandates, and money thrown at unproven educational reforms.
Not confronting what may happen with public schooling now will only cost exponential amounts later just to try and recoup what was “lost.” What really would be lost is not having made sure we did our best for students in real time because we were too busy worrying about having to “pay” for it.
Not making sure that public schools have now what they need to serve students will surely make us “pay” much more down the road.
A federal bond in this economy would mean taking out a loan guaranteed by the federal government at almost no interest. Using that to fund more personnel in schools like nurses, counselors, classified employees, teacher assistants, buildings to house more classrooms with fewer students each, and resources to maintain safety and cleanliness could benefit public schooling immeasurably.
Especially in 2021-2022 when the effects of the recent economic downturn really present themselves.
So what could be used in the meantime to make sure schools open up with as many people and resources needed to increase safety and academic engagement? How about that “rainy-day” fund that Moore and Berger keep bragging about? Considering all of those corporate tax breaks they have championed forced middle and lower income North Carolinians to shoulder the burden of building that “fund,” maybe it’s time to allow our citizens to benefit from it.
Furthermore, imagine the billions of dollars that we could have invested in schools if the state had not kept extending tax cuts to corporations. That money alone would have already alleviated some of the pressures in reopening schools before they were even realized and kept enough staff and resources to combat this massive obstacle more easily. Recalling some of those unneeded tax breaks can now be the basis of paying off the bond.
Private schools will probably lose students to the economic downturn as they did in the last recession. Those who are looking to keep their students at home for homeschooling for the first time will realize that homeschooling is not free. Many families cannot even begin to think of this option because both parents must work to make ends meet. And there really exists no evidence that virtual charter schools have ever done well (certainly not in NC).
But public schools are there and can remain not only viable but can regain its place as one of the strongest in the Southeast if we as a state invest in them.
It will be argued that we cannot even think about putting more of a burden on taxpayers to foot a bond initiative. Well, you can choose to not invest anything now and then spend the next decade “spending” much more money just to try and regain what was lost both monetarily and academically.
And investing more in public school now will give parents and caregivers a little more ease concerning sending students back to schools when they reopen as well as time and energy to invest in their families’ welfare in a time when we all need to recover.