Root of school problems in Durham and state is years of underfunding

Public schools across the state, including in Durham, continue to be harmed by an ideology that sacrifices adequate investment in our children’s education in order to divert public money to special interests and corporate welfare.

As the parent of three children in Durham Public Schools, it would be easy to, like many, lay the blame for the recent funding crisis at the doorstep of the district administration. Certainly, there have been missteps in the adoption of a major policy shift on salaries, but it is important to remember that the district was trying to do the right thing and raise pay for school workers at the bottom of the pay scale.

Most important and crucial to finding a solution is the acknowledgement that, regardless of what the district does, ultimately it is constrained by the public funding provided — or not provided — by state leaders.

That is why I am hopeful that we get serious about the root of this problem — decades of underinvestment by the NC General Assembly in our public schools and a more recent focus on giving tax breaks to big profitable (mostly out-of-state) corporations rather than directing public funds to our children’s education.

For years, public schools have been denied the level of funding that would meet the requirements guaranteed by our state Constitution that every child receive a sound, basic education.

Educators have languished at the bottom of the pay scale relative to their peers in other states, and similarly trained professionals in our state, like cafeteria workers and bus drivers, have worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. School counselors are managing caseloads too big to allow for personalized engagement, while school nurses are hard to find unless you happen to scrape your knee on the day when your school gets their hours. Classroom and school positions have remained vacant, and fewer and fewer people choose a career pathway that would support our children’s education.

So when I see the staff at schools coming together to demand better, I stand with them, along with many other Durham parents.

For years, the NC General Assembly has ignored the need for better pay for every staff person who supports the education of our children — from those who make sure bellies are full so minds are focused to learn, to those who safely get every child to and from school. In the recent budget, despite proposals to raise the pay for bus drivers introduced by the Governor, legislative leaders did nothing and continued to reduce the income tax rate to the benefit of the richest North Carolinians.

In recent years, the General Assembly has provided token investments in our schools, primarily to the egregiously low pay of teachers and administrators. But these token increases have failed to systematically address the reality that we fund our schools through our taxes, and General Assembly leadership continues to choose income tax cuts first ahead of our children. By coming together now to demand the wealthy and big, profitable corporations pay what they owe in taxes, we can make our schools great. We can also make sure the fix to any near-term crisis can be sustained.

As we see more frequent signs of the stress that public schools have been under for decades due to underinvestment, we must consistently point to the underlying cause — some lawmakers who prioritize special private interests over the shared public benefits that are realized when every child has the resources to unlock their potential and every school worker is paid enough to take care of their families with dignity.

The fix in Durham and across North Carolina is readily available to the NC General Assembly — use our public dollars to fund the education our children deserve, our families rely on, and our future requires.