When Charlotte teacher Justin Parmenter shared a live video to Facebook last week of his leaky, saturated classroom roof, he said his students were trying to concentrate on a quiz.
“It’s time for the state to embrace its obligation to adequately fund education,” groused Parmenter, a K-12 advocate and occasional contributor to Policy Watch.
The scene, of course, set a tidy, if yucky, stage for state House Speaker Tim Moore’s all-too-tardy and all-too-small clarion call last month for a $1.9 billion education bond, of which about $1.3 billion would be reserved for K-12 schools. If any student strolled into class as late as this all-out push from the powerful Republican, they’d be sent promptly to the principal’s office.
Hence, perhaps, the cognitive dissonance we may feel for Moore’s grandstanding on the bond, one the top Republican is jostling to put on the ballot in 2020. It’s as if the cavalry sounded the horn, and charged onto a ruined battle field – scarred with cannon fire and rubble – long after the last shot.
But save the waterworks for Charlotte, a district no doubt taxed by growth but aided by a $922 million local school facilities bond in 2017. No, things are far worse in parts of rural North Carolina, where counties’ rather limited financial capacity – read, tax base – makes for an uglier picture. Parmenter’s leaky roof is just a drop in the bucket.
Civil rights attorneys from Chapel Hill documented the dilapidation in at least one of those locales during a 2015 lawsuit, which called into question the failing conditions in Halifax County schools in eastern North Carolina.
Ultimately, the courts ruled that, in Halifax’s rapidly eroding K-12 infrastructure, it is North Carolina that’s to blame, and not the county government, suggesting that the state had again failed on its constitutional obligation to provide an equal education for all, a la 1994’s benchmark Leandro case.
Mold infestations. Rodents scampering through the hallways and students forced to traverse past backed-up toilets. Wheezing air-conditioning and heating systems defeated by the seasons. These are some of the conditions described – often in unsettling detail – in Halifax, a key player in the original Leandro case and a banged-up colonial trading center where 28 percent of its residents live in poverty today.
The children of Robeson County may have a thing or two to say as well. When Hurricane Matthew ravaged southeastern North Carolina in fall 2016, it left four Robeson schools and the system’s central office underwater, maiming a school system that serves about 22,000 – the lion’s share hailing from low-income homes. Hurricane Florence left similar devastation last fall.
When the rich are racked by storms, they open up their wallets and rebuild. But when some of our poorest counties are ransacked, they may need a lifeboat, one the people of North Carolina’s most powerful offices have a moral, and legal, responsibility to provide.
Local governments historically financed school capital needs in North Carolina, while the state funded operations. But with this and other American states’ well-documented decline in K-12 cash after the 2008 recession, locals were asked to pick up a greater share of the operations tab while facilities, in some cases, decayed.
The Halifax County case went to extremes to describe not only the ruined conditions of some schools in struggling areas, but to document the stark demarcation between poor and affluent districts, a widening divide captured each year by the nonpartisan Public School Forum of N.C.’s annual local school finance report.
Indeed, the tax base may be diminished in places like Robeson and Halifax, but the need to educate endures. These children have just as unimpeachable a right to a fine education in a fine school as the children in Charlotte and Raleigh.
Such school systems represent just a fraction of North Carolina’s infrastructure need, pegged by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction nearly three years ago at a mammoth $8 billion, not counting a legislative mandate to cut class sizes that may only compound our ills.
Moore’s proposal, limited as it is in scope, is no doubt curtailed by the state’s own debt capacity, no thanks to the billions of dollars in tax revenues state lawmakers shunted aside in recent years with a series of pricey tax cuts for individuals, particularly high-earners, and corporations.
Put simply, from the mountains to the coast, a North Carolina student simply cannot expect the same quality of school building. And before you wonder if the condition of a public school has any bearing on the academic performance of its students housed within, know that it does, mightily.
Regardless of how the courts settle this matter, the people of North Carolina would be right to hold state lawmakers accountable for the inequality of school facilities.
They would be right to ask how the General Assembly – under both Republican and Democratic leadership – hasn’t authorized a statewide bond for K-12 construction since the Clinton administration, when, from the 1940s to the 1990s, the legislature backed bonds roughly every decade. (A 2016 statewide bond financed $2 billion in construction for higher education, but bypassed K-12.)
They would be right to ask how the General Assembly, Speaker Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger could sandbag this very bond referendum for the better part of three years when the state’s outrageous need was so well documented.
North Carolinians are willing, by and large, to pay for good schools, but only if they’re asked.
Over the last three years, state House lawmakers from both parties indicated a willingness to place a bond on the ballot, but in the claustrophobic, top-down state Senate – where its most powerful leaders warred off and on with public school leaders for a white-knuckled decade – it’s been a slog.
No one has any time for such petty disputes, least of all the legislators charged with properly funding North Carolina public schools and the students who suffer when they don’t. Indeed, I’ll take ten leaky legislative committee rooms over one leaky public school and call it a wash.
When Tim Moore and Phil Berger are annotations in the state’s history books, these students will lead North Carolina and its schools. Perhaps they’ll have learned a lesson about how not to captain the ship from their elders in the present-day General Assembly.
Berger was noticeably absent from the proceedings with Moore, and while it’s difficult to imagine Moore’s holiday announcement proceeding without tacit support from Berger or top Republicans in the state Senate, the bond’s fate is far from sealed, a troubling thought for those who’ve peered into the chasm that separates North Carolina’s poor counties from its wealthy ones.
But there’s no time to consider the passing political whims of a miserly General Assembly, at least when it comes to public education. The billions lawmakers jettisoned to pass sweeping tax cuts come at a price to our state’s budget. It’s up to North Carolinians to decide whether that price is worth our public schools.