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Reports document legislature’s continued assault on democratic, inclusive public schools


Reports document legislature’s continued assault on democratic, inclusive public schools

Feb 28, 2024 | 6:01 am ET
By Kris Nordstrom
Reports document legislature’s continued assault on democratic, inclusive public schools
Image: Network for Public Education

A new report from the Network for Public Education gives North Carolina failing marks for its commitment to democratically governed schools. According to the report, North Carolina legislators are working hard to undermine our public schools. The report puts North Carolina in the bottom five of all states.

When given the proper resources and support, our public schools are one of the few public institutions that foster cross-class and cross-racial solidarity. As a result, our public schools are under increasing attack from those who oppose them. Reactionaries from right-wing think tanks have manufactured a series of moral panics about critical race theory, mask mandates, LGBTQ rights, and, more recently, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). These coordinated efforts – embraced enthusiastically by certain North Carolina lawmakers – have been intentionally designed to undermine the public’s approval of inclusive, democratic, public schools.  

As the report notes, these reactionaries have increasingly found allies in the school choice sector advocating for increased public funding of the discriminatory private school industry: “The spread of the so-called ‘school choice movement’ is linked with a well-orchestrated campaign to turn the public against its schools.”

To measure states’ commitment to democratically governed public schools, this report examines states’ laws relating to school choice, public school funding levels, support for the homeschool sector, and efforts that curb the rights of teachers and students such as book bans and prohibitions on collective bargaining.

North Carolina’s bottom-of-the-barrel ranking reflects several recent legislative actions and negative trends that have undermined inclusive, democratic public schools in North Carolina:

  • Continued expansion of underperforming charter schools and the decision to strip the State Board’s oversight;
  • The tripling of funding for unaccountable vouchers and the opening of the program to wealthy families who are already enrolled in and can afford private school;
  • Chronic underfunding of public schools that has put North Carolina schools at the bottom of rankings for school funding levels and school funding effort;
  • Clinging onto a discriminatory school accountability system that stigmatizes schools serving students of color and students from families with low incomes;
  • Efforts to limit teachers’ ability to best serve their students such as the anti-LGBTQ “Parents Bill of Rights” and the Lieutenant Governor’s FACTS Task Force that tried – but failed – to find evidence of teachers “indoctrinating” their students; and
  • Teacher salaries that trail the national average by a whopping 21 percent.

Interestingly, out of the 17 states earning an F grade, North Carolina is one of only two with a divided government. Despite having a governor who supports public schools, North Carolina’s gerrymandered legislature has provided anti-public school politicians with veto-proof majorities, allowing them to overturn gubernatorial vetoes and undermine the democratic will of the people.

The Network’s report comes on the heels of a feature story in Jacobin detailing how North Carolina’s school privatizers are subverting democracy. North Carolina’s newly universal voucher program only came to being due to a massively gerrymandered legislature and a leadership willing to tie the unpopular voucher program to the desperately needed expansion of Medicaid. In Texas and Georgia, where vouchers have been run as standalone bills, voucher schemes have been defeated.

The good news is that, despite the coordinated efforts of moneyed interests, a right-wing media echo chamber, and anti-public school politicians, most parents are satisfied with their children’s schools. Across the political spectrum a majority of adults feel improving public schools is a better use of public funds than providing families with vouchers. Anti-public school candidates and anti-public school measures like voucher programs have largely been rejected when put on the ballot. Most people are repulsed by policymakers swinging wildly from one manufactured moral panic to the next, banning books, and stoking unhinged behavior at school board meetings.

But as these two new reports have shown, these coordinated attacks on North Carolina schools have convinced some North Carolina politicians to go to great lengths to undermine the will of the people to dismantle one of the last public institutions that can foster cross-class and cross-racial solidarity.