Category Archives: Blog

Empty Words

I’m knee-deep in drafting the SoSNC voter guide this week, and one thing that we’re be looking for is legislators who have made statements in support of public education.  But of course, all statements aren’t created equal, and today I’d like to talk about one education-related boast in particular that sticks in my craw (if you read Stu Egan’s piece on bad education talking points, this one topped his list, too):

“Our budget contains more money for education than we have ever spent before.”  It’s an oft-repeated refrain, one we hear both from the General Assembly and from county commissioners, usually as the budgets they tout fall far short of funding even the basic needs of our schools.  This line bothers me not just because it is meaningless on its face, but also because of what it says about the people who say it and about their attitude toward public education.

First, on its face, the “more than ever before” statement is ridiculous.  If the purpose of a budget is to meet the financial responsibilities of the body creating it, then the success of the budget lies not its its total size, but on its ability actually to fulfill those responsibilities.  In fact, the total size of the budget is irrelevant to its adequacy.  Think about it — if my electric bill goes up because electricity has gotten more expensive and the summer’s been hot,  what happens if I send Duke Energy a check for 60% of my bill and a note saying it’s more than I’ve ever spent before?  I’ll get my electricity turned off.   The relative size of the bill matters not at all, only that it is paid.

But beyond its silliness, the statement is also revealing of a deeper (and concerning) attitude toward public education:  It casts education funding as a choice, not as a responsibility.  If we’re supposed to be grateful for any increase in education spending, no matter how inadequate, then the unstated corollary is that we should be grateful for any education funding at all.   On a state level in particular, this is problematic.

The North Carolina constitution charges the state with providing a free public education to every child in NC.  That means adequate funding for education is literally the least we should expect of the NCGA.  It’s a part of their job so basic that it’s written right into the Constitution.   A budget that falls short of full education funding is a failure, and any legislator presenting such a budget should do so with humility and a darned good explanation.   If, instead, that legislator claims the budget is a success and himself a hero merely because the budget provides some education funds, then either he misunderstands the NCGA’s constitutional responsibility, or is hoping that you do.  Don’t fall for it.

Tilting at Windmills.

Since February, I’ve felt a little lost.  I began my journey as a public school advocate in a time of great crisis.  I began trying to end the unfunded class size mandate.  In fact, Public Schools Forum named the class size mandate the biggest education issue in North Carolina.  As I’ve continually stated HB90, the bill that eventually passed, isn’t a cure all, but certainly no one feels like we are in a crisis.   So what does an advocate do when a crisis isn’t knocking directly on her door?

I started to feel like I was tilting at windmills.  It was the school bond, it was tax caps, it was HB514.  It was school safety and our need for more support staff like psychologist, nurses, and counselors.   It was  teachers marching and speaking of low wages, and rising medical costs.  My heart ached and my head spun.  With so few paying attention, it was hard to keep in mind that all these were very real issues.  The NC short session felt dizzying.  My efforts felt futile. It was so much easier to work on one hashtag, one issue.

I think the biggest eye opener for me was that my one issue, class size chaos, was just a symptom of a broader disease.  The broader disease is a systematic lack of funding for our public schools in North Carolina.  It might take the shape of a unfunded mandate, or a lack of teacher pay for our veteran teachers.  It might look like crumbling school buildings, lead in the pipes, or fundraisers for basic classroom needs.  It’s all the same disease.  All these problems stem from the same source, the refusal of our legislators to fully fund our public schools.

The problem is that all that doesn’t fit in a catchy hashtag.  It’s broad and hard to nail down.  There is no single bill to defeat or help pass.  It can sometimes be clumsy and complicated to convey to the public.  How do I compete with talking points that claim legislators are funding education?

Thus, I take on a new and even more difficult task than working on just one little bill, one issue.  I take on the task of getting our kids the schools they deserve.   I join countless others, who no doubt, are politically more savvy than I.  The only way I can think to truly fight the disease of under-funding our schools, is to vote.  We need to vote in true supporters of public schools, and vote out those who have done us harm.

We are not actually tilting at windmills, our giants are very real.  Keep your chin up.  Keep working.  Keep talking to your neighbor about legislators who have helped or hindered the cause of public education.   Most of all, believe our greatest victory is ahead of us.  It is November 6th election day!