On February 14, activists from across the state and nation gathered in Raleigh to celebrate Valentines Day with a rallying call for the “love” of justice and civil rights in North Carolina. This year’s rally marked the ninth Annual Moral March on Raleigh, an event organized by a coalition of NAACP branches, youth councils, and over 150 social justice organizations. Since its inception in 2006, the number of attendees has grown from 3,000 to an estimated 20-30,000 in 2014, a true testament to the growing concern over issues many feel have been marginalized by state and local legislatures. This year a number of teachers, students and parents joined the march to protest legislation that threatens the ability of public schools to provide students with the education they deserve and the skills they need to be successful later in life.
The first of the fourteen points that make up the agenda for this self-declared “People’s Assembly” is a commitment to establishing and preserving “High Quality, Constitutional, Well-Funded, Diverse Public Schools.” Public education has become a top priority for a number of social justice groups both due to the well-demonstrated link between lack of education and poverty and because North Carolina public educators have long complained about insufficient funding and resources, particularly in impoverished districts. This year, public schools face yet another challenge in the form of a new law which has restricted the allocation of desperately needed state funds to the various school districts.
The law, which was passed by the North Carolina state legislature last August, replaced the formulaic funding structure with one that grants the legislature more autonomy in determining when and where funds are granted. The old system, which was established in 1933 when the state first began funding public schools, ensured that each district received funds in proportion to the number of students served. The legislature would determine the annual per student allotment, and the Department of Public Instruction would report this figure to the districts, who would then report their estimated number of students for the following year. This ensured that funding was distributed as equally as possible between students and allowed districts to construct their budgets in advance with the guarantee that they would receive a given allotment of funds. While educators often complained that the per-student allotments were too low, they were still relatively consistent from year to year and fairly distributed amongst the districts.
The new funding structure gets rid of this guaranteed funding and instead requires only that the state make an initial commitment of funds based on the current number of students enrolled. This commitment does not have to be based on a predetermined formula and does not take into account the population growth that many districts are experiencing. Some state and school finance officers claim that this change will result in a loss of essential funds for many districts; they have condemned the law as a “direct attack” on schools’ ability to provide quality education to North Carolina students.
It is important to note that the implementation of this law will not necessarily result in the drastic cuts in school funding that some believe it will. The legislature will have the option to maintain current levels of funding and, through its budgetary process, provide additional funds to districts that see an increase in pupils. However, it will be under no obligation to do so, and schools will now have to compete with other groups for funds that were previously guaranteed to them. Even if this law does not prove to be a major obstacle for most districts, the fact that it has passed represents the legislature’s failure to treat public education as the essential service that it is. While the stated goal of this new initiative is simply to improve efficiency in the allocation of funds, educators note that the legislature has been “expanding classes sizes and decreasing resources.” Granting the legislature more autonomy means that schools will need to fight harder for funds, and the districts that need them the most, are the very ones that lack the resources to compete.
A number of teachers joined the Moral March with signs bearing the slogan “Poverty is an Education Issue.” One of the greatest obstacles facing children living in impoverished areas across the nation is the lack of access to quality education. There are of number of factors that keeps resources and quality teachers away outside of poor districts, but one of the biggest disadvantages that these districts face is a lack of political capital. The fact that this reform law was passed without any major pushback is, unfortunately, a perfect example. The most concerning aspect of the reform is that the new system no longer forces legislature to take projected increase of student populations into account. This will have very little effect on the majority of North Carolina districts, which have actually seen a decline in students in recent years. However, it creates the potential for a severe loss in funding for districts such as Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which are projected to see an increase in population over the next three years by 8,000 and 9,000 students respectively. These districts are home to many of North Carolina’s most disadvantaged families: just over one third of Wake Country student are on free and reduced lunch, as are more than half the students attending school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Even without this new legislation, North Carolina is ranked 45th in the nation in per-student spending on public education. The marchers at Moral Monday are right that someone needs to provide a voice for the students being denied the right to quality education. Their future, as well as the future of North Carolina, depends on it.