This week, the General Assembly approved measures and appropriated additional federal and state COVID relief funds to public schools across North Carolina, providing some additional, much-needed resources at a time of unprecedented upheaval. The Forum has shared the data on and emphasized the voices of our district leaders on the importance of schools having the budgets that they were expecting to have this year, as well as additional funds to support COVID-19 related expenses and broadband infrastructure across the state. These immediate actions are essential for meeting the needs of our students, and the inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 only amplify the importance of the need for further and deeper investments in our public schools. The legislative action taken this week that holds local school budgets harmless for enrollment declines experienced during the 2020-21 school year is critical for the continued operations of our schools and the success of our students.

But at a time when adequate and equitable funding for public schools is more critical than ever, the legislation passed this week also includes policy changes that divert funding away from public schools through the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program and two other voucher programs, which is likely to hinder the state’s ability to meet its constitutional obligation to ensure every child in North Carolina has access to a sound basic education. Importantly, during this same week, Judge David Lee adopted a 2021 plan for North Carolina to take initial steps toward meeting this constitutional obligation as upheld by the Leandro litigation. This plan requires significant investments in teacher preparation and compensation, high-quality early childhood education programs, turnaround programs for low-performing schools and districts, and a retooled school finance model that more equitably and adequately distributes public dollars to public schools. This week’s legislation provides important and necessary supports for schools this year, but does not address the specific needs identified in Leandro.

As we look ahead, the General Assembly has the opportunity — and, in fact, an obligation — to take a more comprehensive approach to ensuring our state’s children continue along a path toward prosperity that North Carolina’s economy can enjoy in the years to come. The roadmap has been provided — and the answer is investing in public education. North Carolina was ranked 48th in the nation on per-pupil spending when adjusted for regional cost differences and 49th in the nation on actual funding effort. Thus, our state can and must do better for our students and our economy. 

This global pandemic has laid bare the significant structural inequities that so many of our children already face on a daily basis — especially those who are black and brown and live under the scourge of systemic racism, those with learning differences, those who live in rural areas, English language learners and those who live in low-income households. These inequities have and will continue to become even greater during this enormously challenging time. It is incumbent upon the leaders of our great state to ensure that these inequities are faced head-on, and with the Leandro plan adopted by the North Carolina court system, we look forward to our Governor, our State Board of Education, and our General Assembly working together to ensure that every child is provided with a sound basic education.

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