How has state funding impacted NC schools over time? We asked 2 veteran teachers.
This week, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear the Leandro Case for a fourth time in the case's nearly 30-year history. At its heart, it's all about equitable funding for public school students.
Over the past decades, state funding for schools has fluctuated. To understand what that looks like, WUNC spoke with two veteran teachers.
Stu Egan teaches in Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools at a large, suburban school. Jen Smyth teaches at a small, rural school in Hertford County. Both have more than 20 years of experience teaching in North Carolina.
These responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How have your schools changed over time?
Stu: "We are teaching more kids and more classes. I would probably say that's probably had the biggest effect.
"The class cap size was removed. I know of some history and math classes that average well over 35. And so you're asking teachers to handle well over 200 students in an academic year, that would have been unheard of.
"We just got new textbooks this past year. That's the first time that we've had new textbooks since my second year. It's been about 15 years.
"I'm a parent of one student who's already graduated and another one who's about to go into high school. He's a special needs child. He has always needed assistants and things like that. So the number of teacher assistants you see in schools now has gone down."
Although overall funding for North Carolina schools has risen over the past decade, much of that's due to population growth and the rising cost of teachers' health benefits. Funding for specific things, like textbooks and TAs, was never restored to pre-recession levels. How many changes do you attribute to state policy?
Jen: "All of them? Without question? I mean, I started my career right before the shift in control of the legislature legislators."
Stu: "The only thing you need to really do is just follow the history of Leandro and then come through the Great Recession and then about 2008 to 2010 when things were frozen, because we were kind of mired in the economic downturn, did the state ever pick back up where it used to be? And it didn't."
Can you give examples of how working conditions and benefits for teachers have changed? How does that affect your schools or who's teaching in your schools?
Jen: "I have colleagues that are going to other states because they can make $20,000 more just across the border."
Stu: "Richmond County, Virginia already has billboards up in Wake County."
Jen: "And that's a result of deliberate decision-making in the legislature. I don't blame necessarily one party more than the other, but I do know who's in charge. I do know who has failed us. I do know that there were promises made at the beginning of my career, in terms of Leandro and getting that decided and it's still not resolved."
Stu: "I can look at a new teacher who walks into my building tomorrow, and honestly say, "You will never make 80% of what I make, because of the things that have been taken away from you.
"The things that we used to have that we got grandfathered in the having [Stu cites higher pay for master's degrees, funding to pursue national board certification; and due process rights for teachers.] That affects your ability to build up a good pension retirement because that was one of the things that drew people into the teaching profession to begin with."
Is money the answer for schools? If schools simply had more money, would they be better? Would teachers be better?
Jen: "Funding is important, because of the amount of time that it gives us you don't have time as a teacher if your school is not well funded. Because you're having to cover for the positions that are being cut one way or another are the positions that are difficult to fill, because the salaries aren't where they need to be. And so you are losing time and time is being stolen from your students all of the time."
Are you worried about positions being filled in your school this year?
Stu: "We lost another teacher yesterday... We're a school that's just had a good reputation. And we still have to deal with vacancies."
What does it mean for you when there's a vacancy?
Stu: "Well, for one, you want to have a highly qualified individual in those classes. You're talking about students who need support, not just academically, but they [need] presence, a constant presence, a consistent presence. Somebody who wants to be there.
"Throughout the pandemic, you hear of situations, and I know situations in my home county, where students were three or four different teachers for the same subject throughout the year. That's not a good model."
Let's say that your school had double or even triple the resources that you have now, what would you change immediately?
Stu: "The amount of time that teachers had to do the prescribed things that need to be done for students?"
Jen: "Time. I mean, it makes the biggest difference in terms of my ability to support students."
How could resources especially through funding buy you more time?
Stu: "I would like to see more assistant principals. I would like to see more nurses, I would like to see more social workers in schools. I would like to see many, many more guidance counselors in each school.
"So many students have so many things going on, what can I do to get them to the person or the resource that would help them the most? Because when those obstacles pop up, they're not going to academically achieve, they're just going to try and get by."
What are some of the other resources you need that maybe people wouldn't realize?
Jen: "I have a monthly book budget. I set aside 100 bucks a month to buy books for my classroom. So like, like, you know, like they like there's a book of poetry by Tupac Shakur that I buy every year. Because every year somebody needs to keep it. And I don't know who that somebody is going to be, but every year somebody does."
The Leandro case will soon be before the state Supreme Court, and the central question is can the court order the legislature to pay for the current years of a multi-billion dollar plan to improve education. It includes funding for some of the things Stu just mentioned like support staff. What else do you want to see from it?
Stu: "The charts and the amount of math that went into it was was quite impressive. In part was salaries, but part of it was simply funding things like special ed, special ed services in rural counties. Transportation: how many buses do you need to have running for this amount of students? How big do your classes really need to be? Before you start seeing situations where kids are falling through the cracks? It covered a little bit of everything, most of which is not part of the, you know, the everyday dialogue that people have, when it comes to public education."
Do you think you will see fair equitable school funding before your teaching career ends?
Jen: "Not if there's not a change in the legislature."
Stu: "It can happen that I mean, it's possible, it can happen. But the people who control the purse strings are the people who keep getting elected office."