Every year as students from pre-school through college return to the classroom, North Carolinians have a window through which to see how our collective investments match up to the needs of communities.
Are classrooms crowded? Are children ready for Kindergarten? Do schools have the resources to deliver a 21st century education? Do parents need to provide more and more personal resources to fill the gaps?
In recent years, despite an economic expansion that provided an opportunity to improve the classroom experience, the needs of our children and our communities have been increasingly neglected. As Budget and Tax Center analyst Cedric Johnson highlighted recently, state per student spending in North Carolina this school year remains below pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation. This is obviously bad news for our children, each of whom should have the supports and tools we know are necessary to foster achievement in the classroom and life. And this reality makes the promise and excitement of a new school year feel a little bit harder to realize.
The problem here does not arise because we can’t prioritize making sure every child is ready for Kindergarten or that every child passes third grade reading tests or that every child has the supports needed to graduate high schools. We can. Sadly, the problem is that our policymakers have prioritized tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy and profitable corporations and shortchange our children and all of our futures.
This is not just a story about classrooms and schools, of course. Too much of our discussion excludes the investments that clear the pathway to educational attainment for every child. Whether it’s making sure children have access to healthy and nutritious food so that they aren’t hungry while learning, providing access to school nurses who help manage chronic health conditions like asthma and provide preventive care, many critical supports have been shortchanged in recent years in North Carolina. What’s more, this is occurring at a time in which many families face wage stagnation and have yet to regain their economic footing in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Each year that we consider how North Carolina is doing for our children, we must also ask how well we are doing for their communities. Does every child have stable housing, let alone a safe, affordable home? Does every community have playgrounds and parks to encourage community-building and physical activity? Does every community have the healthy main street businesses that support economic opportunity and vitality?
Our collective investments in our communities matter to children’s educational success and families’ economic well-being. Recent national research continues to highlight how North Carolina’s communities stack up against their peers and the findings are disturbing. North Carolina is home to some of the highest rates of hunger, lowest rates of economic mobility and largest declines in the middle class among the 50 states.
The links between these phenomena are painfully obvious; delays in attainment of key developmental milestones happen as a result of the toxic stress of living in poverty and the instability of households and communities present real challenges in planning and preparing for a brighter future.
In short, we cannot expect all children to succeed when we haven’t committed to making sure every community can thrive. Investing in affordable housing, supporting home-grown entrepreneurs to grow businesses and expand employment opportunities, and providing healthy environments for children and families should be considered essential complements to our direct investments in the classroom.
Every day and every year matters as children prepare for successful futures and each day we underinvest in their experience we set up an unnecessary barrier to their success.
This year as my children start a new school year, I know that the teachers, administrators, parents and members of the broader community where we live will do all we can to make their education a priority. The question is: When will our state leaders do the same and recognize that educating every child in North Carolina means committing themselves to the construction of thriving communities?
Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.