GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – A group of Democratic legislators from the Piedmont Triad – led by a few people well versed in the educational system of North Carolina – gathered in Greensboro on Monday to suggest that it’s time for lawmakers such as themselves to get back to work and pass a budget that funds public education.
You likely know that the General Assembly hasn’t been doing much since June, what with vacations and all, but one of the things that have been going on is Republicans debating with Republicans about the biennial budget that was supposed to be in place by July 1.
But now we are exactly 14 days from the formal first day of school – some students already are in class – and lawmakers are suggesting that school districts open doors without knowing what they can provide to teachers to get them into classrooms and keep them there, both dire needs.
Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Guilford), who is the deputy Democratic leader in the House, is a former teacher, principal and school superintendent. On Monday she said others like her were standing in front of cameras around the state to make their pitches.
“We stand here today with no new budget but with a handful of bills that have been debated and consumed,” Clemmons said. “It’s time to stand up for our children.”
She was joined by Reps. Amos Quick (D-Guilford) and Amber Baker (D-Forsyth) and Guilford County Commissioner (and teacher) Mary Beth Murphy, Forsyth County Commissioner (and former educator) Malishai Woodbury and Guilford County Board of Education Vice Chair Bettye Jenkins. Quick also is a former member of the school board.
The big issue is funding for schools, of course, and House Speaker Tim Moore has said that lawmakers won’t vote on a budget until September.
Gov. Roy Cooper nearly three months ago declared a state of emergency for public education because of the decisions already made by the General Assembly and the absence of a timely budget. Expansion of voucher programs, which could be included in the budget, is a major concern.
The House had passed its version of the budget around Easter. The Senate followed with its plan in mid-May, which the House rejected on May 24. Those two budgets did vary greatly, including the amount of raises for teachers and state employees, but Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) have said most of the issues have been worked out.
Cooper and other Democrats have complained about how the delays affect Medicaid expansion and school funding.
“They need to get back to Raleigh, pass this budget,” Cooper said.
Jenkins said that there are numerous vacancies in school districts and that “our students in our classrooms deserve better. Our leaders deserve better … our community deserves better. We know that we are better together.”
She noted that last year the General Assembly “created a $100 million teacher supplement fund. Unfortunately, Guilford County was one of the four counties excluded from this new opportunity, making us compete with our neighbors.”
That exclusion – because of the legislature’s focus on rural communities – could continue through the 2024-25 school year at least, Clemmons said. Forsyth County had been excluded but no longer is.
Murphy said that the legislature has failed to fulfill its obligation “to fund positions, operating cost, school materials for children in our community. Unfortunately, their perpetual and historic failure over the course of the last decade to make adequate investments in public education has resulted in an increased burden on local government.
“Over the course of the last three years, we have continued to increase funding for schools as a result of these shortfalls at the state level, we are increasing teacher supplement because Guilford County was left out of the fund that was created by the General Assembly.”
She cited the frequently mentioned “Leandro” decision that has been batted back and forth by courts since the 1990s as a requirement to fully fund public education. Lawmakers don’t want to do that, and they have fought in court to reject the latest requirement that they figure out how best to meet that mandate.
Leandro is shorthand for the suit filed in 1994 by a group of five minority-majority counties – Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland – under Hoke County Board of Education, et al, v. State of North Carolina et al, which eventually found that not all students were equally funded.
Leandro – so named for a middle school student who was named as a plaintiff – has had more than one version and many hearings, rulings and appeals. In November, the Supreme Court backed a ruling from November 2021 by Wake County Superior Court Judge David Lee that ordered the General Assembly to transfer $1.75 billion into the state budget to cover the amount owed for the next three years, with $1.5 billion going to the state Department of Public Instruction for the 115 public school districts, $189.9 million to the Department of Health and Human Services and $41.3 million to the UNC system.
But, in March, the new Republican majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court moved to undo that decision, with Justice Trey Allen writing for a 5-2 GOP majority that the case had not fully answered questions brought about funding from State Controller Nels Roseland.
This is indicative of the frustration that the educators/elected leaders who spoke Monday had to say about the General Assembly’s failure.
“Like choice and options, the legislature has instead reduced those very ideals for the vast majority of North Carolina school children who still attend traditional public schools instead of making sure that every child has a competent, well-paid teacher,” Clemmons said.
Baker cited the need for professional development that helps teachers grow and learn, and Woodbury perhaps hit on the key point that lawmakers are missing.
“This is nothing that our state needs to play with,” she said, “especially with the impact we have felt from COVID.”