It is impossible to generalize the issues afflicting different schools in North Carolina, because resources, size, and community values vary so widely. However, one thing is apparent: North Carolina’s public schools are in a crisis, and parents, educators, administrators and policymakers alike are calling for immediate action.
The good news is the state already came up with a solution. In 1994, students from school districts in Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance, and Cumberland Counties sued the school board on the basis that they were denied their constitutional right to “a basic sound education,” in a case widely known as “Leandro v. State of North Carolina.” The Leandro case went to trial in 1997, and in 2002 the court found that the students’ rights were violated. A nonpartisan committee of education experts were hired to write the WestEd report on what North Carolina needed to do to get to the bare minimum requirements.
Despite the court ruling 20 years ago, the state legislature is still refusing to invest in public education and fund Leandro.
Teachers in the 1,600 person Allegheny County don’t feel restricted by a lack of resources, instead they face an obsession with testing that prevents them from teaching their curriculum. This stems from what an anonymous teacher characterizes as a school board that is “close minded and embittered towards public education.” Ultimately, this forces teachers to teach directly to the EOC state tests, and prevents students from getting multiple perspectives. “Overall it’s resulting in a shift to a lot of online education where teachers are just babysitters managing kids on screens rather than actually really teaching,” they said.
This stripped-down education produces a cycle of social promotion, where principals’ raises are based on graduation rates, “so everything is rigged to get every kid to walk across that stage and for no one to drop out,” they said. And while graduation rates have increased, it hasn’t correlated to success in college. Only 54 percent of graduates from Allegheny County pursue higher education, and just 51 percent of those students who enrolled earn a degree in 6 years, according to a study conducted by the UNC Population Center.
Macon County is intensely economically diverse. Some students at the high school come from mountain resort communities with one of the wealthiest zip codes in the county, while 48.5 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. This stark inequality is perpetuated by Western North Carolina’s shift towards becoming home to retirees and second home owners, causing real estate prices to skyrocket, and motivating the county to cut taxes.
“[Retirees and second home owners] don’t have kids in school, they couldn’t give two s–ts if public schools are financed properly,” social studies teacher John Deville said. Deville also said that teachers feel the impact of this crisis because their salaries have not kept up with the rising real estate prices.
Orange county is one of the wealthiest counties in the state. It offers more opportunities and courses for students and boasts the highest teacher salaries in the state, because the district can afford to add supplements on top of the state salary, something that under-resourced districts can’t afford to do.
This protects them from issues other counties endure, like teacher shortages and frequent staff turnover. “If I wanted to leave this district, I would be taking a pay cut,” Neil Morgan, an East Chapel Hill English teacher, explained. “So we attract more teachers and there’s more competition for jobs.”
But with more opportunities, comes more inequity. At East Chapel Hill High School, only 43 percent of underserved students score at or above proficiency on North Carolina End-of-Course Tests, while an astounding 95% of all other students score proficient, according to data from the 2019 North Carolina End-of-Grade Tests data from North Carolina Department of Public Instruction compiled by GreatSchools.
Halifax County schools constantly struggled with teacher shortages. “At one point, they went four years without college counselors, and three years without math teachers,” said Riverside guidance counselor Courtney Higgins, who worked in Southeast Collegiate Prep Academy in Halifax County. “The students had to teach themselves math with online classes.”
The constant short staffing and frequent turnover hurts the students. “The first year I was there was the first time in seven years that all the staff stayed the whole year,” she said. This caused a dramatic increase in the graduation rate, from 71 percent to 87 percent.
Additionally, suspensions and behavioral issues decreased. “The students there are so used to staff coming and going. I was gone one day, and when I came back the next day they were surprised to see me,” she said. “They told me that teachers leave them and never come back.”
Duplin County lacks a lot of resources, both because of its rural locale and the high levels of poverty. Necessary resources, like dental services and mental health crisis units, could be reached, but they weren’t fixtures of the community. As a result, the school assumed the responsibility of providing resources to the community. “The school became a staple resource,” Hague said. “Our school social worker did a lot with collecting resources and housing them in the school for our families. We had a clothing pantry and a food pantry.”
Additional resources, like mental health crisis units and mobile dental care, were funded through grants derived from the Title I program, which according to the U.S. Department of Education, aims to “ensure economically disadvantaged children receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, by helping to close academic achievement gaps.” Schools are eligible for these supplemental Title I funds if at least 40% of their student body consists of low-income students.
Jones Vs. Durham County
Public school funding is largely per capita, which works really well in urban densely populated areas, but can prove to be a problem in counties with smaller populations. This generates vastly different sized pools of funds. As a result, the federal government as well as the state of North Carolina has attempted to shrink the gap by offering varying amounts of government funding to under resourced school districts.
However, the education expenses are not proportional per capita, because no matter the size of the student population, it costs roughly the same amount to run a school with overhead costs, or central expenses, like heat, water, and electricity.
This ultimately disadvantages schools with smaller student bodies. Jones Senior High School has less than 500 students, yet because the number of students doesn’t impact the cost of operating a school, overhead costs are roughly the same as Riverside’s expenses. This disportunate spending results in an astounding 13 percent of their funding to be devoted to central expenses, which is more than double the state average of 6 percent (Riverside’s is 6.1 percent).
Additionally, Riverside’s greatest asset, their engineering program, is also driven by the number of students enrolled and the size of the county. However, provisions for this program come from a separate funding source. The Perkins Act, which was passed by Congress in the 1960’s, provides urban, rural, and suburban schools with a pot of money that is not dependent on local property taxes for Career and Technical Education. All engineering teachers’ salaries and equipment come from provisions of the Perkins Act.