It’s my favorite time of year. Colorful backpacks dot the sidewalks, yellow buses roll down the streets, and our school buildings open their doors to welcome students back. As a teacher, I never slept the night before school started. There was always an awkward queasiness. With some recent decisions made by state elected leaders, I can’t help but have the same sinking feeling.
Our public school students are not getting the opportunities they deserve, educators are not getting the respect they deserve, and every student is not getting the welcome they deserve. The celebration of a new school year can only hide the real challenges facing our students for only so long. The truth then sets in.
While leaders in the state legislature and the governor benefited from an $800 million surplus the last two years, they set artificial spending limits resulting in public school students being shortchanged on resources. The fact is, when you pull salary and benefit adjustments out of the budget, there was less than a .25 percent increase for our classrooms. North Carolina ranks as one of the worst states in the country for per-pupil spending, and last year fell another $70 behind. North Carolina now sits nearly $2,800 behind the national average.
Instead of prioritizing public school classrooms, some of our elected leaders are prioritizing corporate boardrooms and a Rainy Day Fund that tops $1.5 billion. Meanwhile it’s a rainy day for many of our students.
Despite this, the school year is being met with a barrage of political ads claiming it’s a sunny day for teachers and public schools. In the ads, there is boasting about what has been done for educators, but an analysis by NC Policy Watch concludes the state budget includes false statements on average teacher salaries and that the math doesn’t add up on stated average salary increases.
Since 2012 there are 35,000 more students and 4,900 fewer teachers, and thousands of teacher assistants have been cut. That’s moving backward to me, not forward. I’m in school buildings hearing the truth from educators all the time. That opening day mojo quickly turns to feelings of disrespect and frustration.
Also, when the school doors fly open this year to welcome our students back, not all of our students may feel so welcome thanks to House Bill 2. This short-sighted, discriminatory legislation risks a devastating impact for a generation of North Carolina students that could take decades to recover from, if we can recover at all. Transgender students already face a greater chance of experiencing violence, bullying, and discrimination – and HB2 exacerbates the problem.
Schools are a place where they should feel the safest. In addition to providing excellent instruction, making sure ALL our students feel safe and welcomed is what teachers strive to provide. We teach our children not to discriminate – but we are not seeing that modeled by some of our legislators, and particularly our governor. The message lawmakers send with HB 2 is that all are not welcomed. That’s not what educators are about and it’s not what North Carolina is about.
So if you want the truth about public education, don’t rely on twisted rhetoric – ask a teacher.
Mark Jewell is the President of the North Carolina Association of Educators.