“I’m tired of having to write grants for basic supplies in my classroom”: New report illuminates constitutional crisis of North Carolina’s chronically underfunded schools

This week Progress NC published a comprehensive report about the state of North Carolina schools called True Reports of Underfunded Education (T.R.U.E.).

Coming on the heels of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s comically inept indoctrination report and right in the middle of both state budget negotiations and important new developments in the Leandro case, the T.R.U.E. report details how North Carolina’s failure to adequately fund public schools is impacting the state’s students and public school staff in real terms.

The T.R.U.E. web portal fielded 592 submissions over the course of just one month, easily surpassing the number Robinson’s witch hunt collected in a much longer period of time. Submissions were evenly distributed throughout the state, representing snapshots of life in both rural and urban schools.

Participants in the T.R.U.E. project shined the spotlight on low wages, unreasonably high work loads, shortage of basic supplies, overcrowded classrooms, unsafe pandemic practices, and crumbling school buildings as the reality facing North Carolina’s students and school staff:

“Our school has vacancies that need to be filled, and NO subs, so support staff and classroom teachers alike are being pulled to provide coverage for teacherless classrooms. As the librarian, there are many days where I spend half my day providing this coverage, and the media center is closed”.

“Planning periods are routinely taken away, which leaves us with no time to do non-instructional things like planning and grading, yet we are expected to do them. We already exist with no lunch breaks, working 8-9 hour days with no breaks and then we have to stay after to do the other things which are required of us. It is just plain wrong”.

“We are still using PCs from the early 2000s. We have smartboards that are no longer interactive because the technology isn’t supported or is outdated. We have a shortage of paper towels and cleaning supplies in our district”. 

“There’s mold. There are windows that don’t work. There are rooms that don’t have working AC. We have places in our school where students walk over wooden pallets when it rains because of the water puddling on the floor”.

“I have witnessed classes that were designed to have a maximum of 25 students being crammed with 38 and 40 students”.

“The very least we should be able to expect is a physically safe learning environment where the air is safe to breathe, the plumbing and electricity works, and kids can travel the halls safely”.

These eyewitness accounts from inside North Carolina schools help explain the urgency behind Superior Court Judge David Lee’s ruling this week that the state must transfer $1.7 billion in reserve funds to cover the first two years of the Leandro Remedial Plan.

Lee’s decision comes 17 years after the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state had failed in its constitutional obligations to provide a sound education, ordering the funding deficiencies to be corrected and assigning Superior Court to monitor the state’s compliance.

Far from embracing their constitutional duties, the leaders of both the North Carolina House and Senate have repeatedly thumbed their noses at the court’s attempts to carry out its mandate.

Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger–who has repeatedly blocked school bonds from state ballots despite a staggering $13 billion in statewide facility needs–has mockingly suggested that “if judges want to get into the field of appropriating they need to run for the legislature.”

House Speaker Tim Moore this week went even further, branding Lee a “rogue judge” and threatening that any attempt to compel state legislators to fund the Leandro plan “would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response”–a likely reference to an attempt to remove Lee from office.

Think about that for a minute.

We have a Supreme Court which has ordered the state to adequately fund public schools and a Superior Court attempting to ensure compliance.

We have a comprehensive, research-based report detailing specific steps the state can take to comply.

We have classrooms jammed with upwards of 40 students in the middle of a pandemic, an unprecedented wave of teacher resignations, and children climbing over wooden pallets to stay out of flood water in their crumbling school buildings.

And the leaders of the legislature’s reaction? Let’s get rid of the judge.

Moore and Berger’s claim is that North Carolina’s Constitution does not allow the courts to make funding decisions and that crossing that line would amount to a constitutional crisis.

The T.R.U.E. constitutional crisis is their unwillingness to provide North Carolina’s children with a sound basic education, and this crisis has gone unaddressed for far too long.

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