Yesterday State Superintendent Mark Johnson dropped a tantalizing teaser.
On Wednesday, April 3, he’d join chairs of both the House and Senate Education Committees as well as PENC Executive Director Bill Medlin and 2017 NC Teacher of the Year Lisa Godwin in the General Assembly Press Conference Room for a ‘major education announcement.’
Speculation ran rampant. Would Johnson announce the return of the 7,500 teaching assistants lost to budget cuts over the last decade? Unveil the merger of House and Senate school construction bond proposals into a $4 billion superbond? Accede to all 5 demands of the All Out for May 1st organizers and render the upcoming march on the General Assembly unnecessary?
The first ominous sign was the absence of Lisa Godwin. Godwin actually announced on social media the night before that she had decided not to participate in the event because of concerns about the direction of the initiative, saying “After much consideration and prayer, I have decided not to be a part of the announcement.”
When Johnson stepped to the microphone he was flanked only by Republican legislators and the executive director of a small, conservative teacher organization called Professional Educators of North Carolina. No actual teachers were a part of the photo op, and the reason quickly became apparent.
Johnson and Senator Wells announced the creation of the NC School Supply Program, which would take back the majority of the nearly $50 million normally allocated to school districts for school supplies and instead funnel it into an app called ClassWallet which teachers can access directly.
That’s right, there was no plan to provide a new infusion of funds for a supply allocation that is so shallow that the Governor has to hold annual supply drives to solicit donations of notebooks and pencils from the public. No proposal to give more money to teachers who are constantly turning to Donors Choose in order to be able to put books in their students’ hands. Instead, legislators will simply be taking the money from one pot and putting it into another.
When asked about Lisa Godwin’s absence, Superintendent Johnson said he didn’t know why she was missing and that he thought she supported the initiative. It seems very unlikely that either of those things is true. Godwin actually commented on the issue in an interview. She said she initially thought the program meant additional funding for classroom supplies before discovering it was simply a reallocation of existing funds. She added, “When I reflected on that … that’s gonna hurt districts, because districts are already underfunded.”
To explain the need for the proposed legislation, Wells claimed misspending of money by school districts was the real reason teachers had to keep going into their own pockets for classroom supplies, saying, “Bureaucrats used the money to pay for other things on their to-do list and left teachers to pay for their own classroom supplies.”
The reason that teachers have to beg the public for money or come out of their own pockets to purchase classroom supplies has nothing to do with districts mishandling money. It has everything to do with the General Assembly’s 55% reduction in funding for that budget allotment over the last decade.
It’s a pattern that has become all too common in the General Assembly: attempt to divert public attention from problems created by their own lack of funding by claiming others are negligent, then offer a bad solution that doesn’t include more resources.
This time the bad solution is ClassWallet, a tool which teachers in other states have complained has a very limited selection, charges prices far higher than their schools can get buying bulk, and is not available until well into the school year. It’s likely that a simple conversation with a teacher or two could have revealed some of the flaws with this approach, but Johnson admitted that he hadn’t actually spoken with any teachers about it.
As a wise state senator said to me not long ago, you can’t be number one in both tax cuts and public education. You have to choose. Right now we have state legislators who want to be number one in tax cuts but would like to maintain the appearance of steadfast support for public education, and we have a state superintendent who is all too ready to sign off on bad ideas and pretend teachers are on board with them. Our students and teachers deserve better than this disingenuous shell game.