Don’t Let “Education” Fool You

Discriminatory bills affect the quality of life for NC citizens.

Nelda Holder, photo by Tim Barnwell
Nelda Holder
Photo: Tim Barnwell
Legislative News by Nelda Holder –

Evidently I’ve got to stop thinking that “things won’t get any worse.”

The current NC legislators—or more specifically the Republican majority in the NC Statehouse—has been busy filing and passing discriminatory bills that directly affect the quality of life for the state’s citizens.

Denying the women of this state autonomy in their personal medical decisions regarding pregnancy has been covered at length in the press. SB 20, Care for Women, Children, and Families Act (otherwise known as the “abortion bill”), has passed both Senate and House and sits now on the governor’s desk awaiting a promised veto which may or may not be overridden. And there’s the plethora of attempts to undermine the individual rights of non-heterosexual individuals.

Receiving less press scrutiny than the “hot button” issues, there’s HB 187 (Equality in Education), masquerading as “ensuring dignity and nondiscrimination in schools” while essentially prohibiting academic rigor in questioning or discussing racism and other historic discrimination.

And then there’s HB 823/SB 406 (Choose Your School, Choose Your Future): Our tax money paying for private schooling without the current income limits for parents. A sort of “free for all.”

Listen carefully. The amount of money the state would dedicate under “Choose Your School” would increase from $94,840,000 in 2022-23 to $415,540,000 in the next three years, and up to $520,540,000 annually within 10 years. More than half a billion dollars a year that will not be going to support the once well-respected public school system of this once well-respected state.

And an auxiliary mind-twister on this proposal is that the current funding for our public schools is still waiting for the court-ordered equity funding of $1.7 billion, set by the Leandro court decision in order to meet the state’s obligation to provide every child a sound, basic education. It was acknowledged that rural and low-income counties would benefit the most from the Leandro charge, but that all public school students would ultimately be positively affected.

Remedial action (the Joint Leandro Action plan) was ordered in 2021, calling for $427 million in new state education funding this year as part of an eight-year plan that would include high-quality teacher development and recruitment with competitive pay; a dependable finance system of equitable funding to address the needs of all NC schools and students; an assessment and accountability system to scrutinize the multiple measures of school performance against the Leandro standard; necessary support to low-performing schools and districts; access to high-quality pre-kindergarten to assure support to all at-risk students; early postsecondary and workforce learning opportunities, and more.

The General Assembly, under Republican-majority leadership, has failed to meet this court-ordered obligation. Instead, it has now presented a $520,540,000 plan of its own to ultimately support private schooling.

“The state has the money to do it,” says Heather Koons, referring to the Leandro funding. Koons is the communication director for Public Schools First NC, a nonprofit organization supporting public schools. She offered an assessment that legislative leadership “clearly is not interested in providing quality education for all students.” Instead, they are pushing to have the state “paying for private education for families already sending their children to private schools.”

Koons questioned spending money not on a public education system for all students—with no discrimination—but instead spending it on private schools with no public accountability.  She particularly questioned having state money pay for private education for families “already sending children to private schools.”

Then there’s the question of the gulf between education standards in public and private schools—a curious contrast highlighted in an April 19 TIME article written by Joshua Cowen, Professor of Education Policy at Michigan State University: “How School Voucher Programs Hurt Students.” Cowen has studied vouchers and other forms of school choice for nearly 20 years, and found “some of the largest test score drops ever seen in the research record”—similar to the statistical effect of Covid-19 on student test scores. That means -0.15 and -.50 standard deviations of learning loss.

Cowen’s findings include such notable circumstances as the frequent refusals of “elite private schools” to participate in voucher plans. Roughly 20% of students “leave voucher programs each year”—giving up the payment or pushed out by the schools.

Hardly a high recommendation for allocating a half billion dollars per year from our state budget while our public school funding slips further into murky, legislatively controlled waters. And lest you think we are not in trouble, this once-proud state now ranks 34th in average teacher pay among all 50 states, and 46th in beginning teacher pay. This is a critical time to pay attention to our public school system and to bringing back the quality of which we used to boast.

The Possible Fate of the Lovely Redbud

One of my favorite North Carolina sights in the spring is the rosy-pink of the wild redbuds brightening our remaining stretches of forest. The drive between Asheville and the capitol city of Raleigh, for example, is always cheerier with the warm white of dogwoods and lively vibrance of the redbuds.

Enter, THE VILLAIN.

Quoted in the May 8, 2023 Raleigh News & Observer, the executive director of the NC Outdoor Advertising Association, TJ Bugbee, complained that a redbud “can be 30 feet tall and 35 feet wide, and we’ve got some billboards that are only 25 feet high…. We’ve got a lot of instances where there’s a redbud smack in the middle of the face of the billboard.”

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: Would you rather see a 30-foot tall redbud in full bloom, or a 25-foot tall billboard advertisement?

Currently, there’s actually a legislated protection (since 2011) for dogwoods and redbuds, but Bugbee wants that chopped down, along with these gloriously happy spring trees. (I am trying very hard here not to make a joke about the Bugbee name, by the way.)

The House has passed its version of HB 198. According to the N&O, the Department of Transportation “did not ask that the billboard measure be included” and yet, there it is. Sticking up like a red(bud) flag. You might want to contact your local legislators about this one, folks.

Last, for Now … Women’s Reproductive Rights

For a long time, I’ve wondered how something so incredibly personal and so individually unique as a woman’s medical needs and choices regarding her reproductive health could have become the obsession of angry people who spit the word “abortion” out of their mouths with no respect for the larger picture of that woman’s individual life.

Now we are faced with legislation in an increasing number of states—including North Carolina—that would dare to presume primacy over a woman’s decision, with her medical advisor, regarding her personal health and wellbeing … including a situation involving pregnancy and the physical and emotional health issues that can entail.

By the time this column is in print, we may have the promised veto of SB 20 (the “abortion bill”) by Gov. Roy Cooper, and we may know if any of the strangers in the legislature who do not know the woman/women their votes will affect … do not know what their medical, mental, physical, economic, or other situation may be in what should be their autonomous lives … will reconsider voting to force their will upon these women and instead uphold Cooper’s promised stand.

This legislative session has been a singularly selfish one—filled with bills that do not lift up this state and its people, and bills that instead tell the citizens of the state that their rights and beliefs and freedom are secondary to the whims of legislators any of whom can garner enough support to pass a law of his or her own molding, according to his or her personal belief.

This has not been a generous or kind-spirited supervision of this fair state’s legislative business. And it is time for all of us, I think, to consider exactly how far we should try to go in demanding that the personal choices of the individual residents of this state reflect only what the majority party in the Statehouse dictates.

 


Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts.