Teachers across North Carolina had a chance to talk with state lawmakers Monday about a wide range of topics affecting public education. Here locally, state representative Jeffrey Elmore visited Bethlehem Elementary School for about three hours to tour classes, read with children, and hear from educators. The Public School Forum organized the day for May 15th to grow relationships between legislators and school staff.
Elmore addressed staff questions about a proposal to give more money to families for private school vouchers. The state’s voucher program was created in 2013 to help low-income families. The new bill would remove the income cap allowing any family to get money to go to private schools. Critics, including the North Carolina Association of Educators, say expanding vouchers will “perpetuate a system that deprives those communities most in need of resources”, says Tamika Kelly, NCAE president.
Elmore disputed claims the general assembly is trying to starve schools. “There’s always going to be a role for public schools that’s the reality of it. So the idealogue that thinks this all can be privatized is absolutely insane because rural north Carolina you’re never going to be able to have enough economy of scale to support massive private schools taking care of everything. So I don’t see if ever moving in that direction.”
Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Hefner is frustrated with the voucher proposal and says she wants to reach communities and families to let them know the negative impacts of voucher expansion. “In Alexander County, private schools and home schools there is no oversight or accountability that I can see. And we’re under the microscope all the time for everything. And you said it. Tax dollars, that’s what we operate on, that’s how we operate, so I’m good with that. Hold me accountable. But don’t be giving tax dollars to folks that aren’t being held to the same standards,” said Hefner.
Students in private schools do not have to take standardized tests every year even though students in public schools do. Private schools also do not have to report the students’ test scores, whereas public schools are issued a report card grade from the state. Also, North Carolina does very little academic monitoring of those who homeschool their children.
Third-grade teacher Chrisi Williams told Elmore that private schools can pick the students who go there while public schools take all students. She worked at a private school before teaching at Bethlehem. She also said private school students are not always academically superior. “They are not where they need to be when they come back to us,” said Williams.
On a related topic, Elmore also declared the state could not spend surplus money on schools. The state has $3.25 billion dollars unallocated. Just last fall, lawmakers moved billions into a rainy-day fund. The surplus came from a boost in sales tax collections, higher than expected corporate tax collections and federal Covid relief. “We’re holding on to surplus money. We’ve been through two hurricanes, where we spent millions to be able to have that rainy day fund and keep people in their homes. We’re getting ready to go into an economic downturn and we’re not having to do layoffs, freezes, to keep our costs of living going. That’s a money management issue,” says Elmore.
Pre-K through university spending makes up about 60% of the overall state budget of 62.5 billion dollars a year. Elmore says the house proposal is for a modest pay raise to teachers and instructional staff to cover inflation. The senate released its budget late Monday, which calls for a 4.5% pay raise over the next two years, or two-and-a-quarter each year on average.
Fourth-grade teacher John Gruber said his daughters are in education but can make more money in other states. “It’s a difficult job. It needs value and respect and with that respect, pay,” says Gruber.
Elmore also discussed other issues such as the way school performance is calculated, calendar flexibility, class sizes, curriculum mandates, and funding for teaching assistants. Hefner thanked the representative for his visit saying she knows he can’t change everything at once. “We didn’t expect you to wave a magic wand,” said Hefner.
Elmore thanked the group for their work with students and said the system is “doing it right” here. The legislature goes back to work the week of the 15th. The state senate budget vote could come later that week.