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Checking in with public school advocates at the start of a new school year

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  • “North Carolina students, families, and educators face a critical time as we head into fall, with no state budget and a number of new laws passed that will impact the school experience for all,” said the Public School Forum's Dr. Mary Ann Wolf.
  • Advocates said they are worried about proposed voucher expansion, the expected budget, staffing vacancies, the early child care crisis, and how new legislation will impact equity in schools. But they also have a lot planned to address those concerns.
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There’s a lot of education news in North Carolina at the start of this new school year.

Schools across the state are working to implement new legislation like, Senate Bill 49, which impacts student-teacher relationships and what can be taught in the classroom, among other things.

At the same time, school districts are preparing for the potential expansion of school choice, which could have a significant impact on school funding and enrollment. Public schools across the state are also working to address pre-existing staffing vacancies, while operating with continuation funding until a new budget is adopted.

“North Carolina students, families, and educators face a critical time as we head into fall, with no state budget and a number of new laws passed that will impact the school experience for all,” Mary Ann Wolf, president and executive director of Public School Forum, told EdNC. “Advocating with policymakers for what we know is best for students remains a top priority.”

With all of this in mind, EdNC recently checked in with public school advocacy organizations across the state. Advocates said they are worried about many things: proposed voucher expansion, the expected budget, staffing vacancies, the early child care crisis, and how new legislation will impact equity in schools.

Advocates also said they have a lot planned this fall to address such concerns — with legislators, elected officials, and the public.

“A lot of folks may be feeling helpless in this moment, just feeling like there’s so much going on … that there’s nothing they can do,” said Jerry Wilson, director of policy and advocacy at Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED). “I just want to state definitively that individuals can make a big difference in this moment. And the way to do that is by connecting with other folks who feel similarly… So that we can protect our public schools and make sure that we deliver the high quality education that children in North Carolina are constitutionally entitled to.”

CREED NC’s Jerry Wilson. Hannah McClellan/EducationNC

Proposed voucher expansion

On May 22, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency for public education in North Carolina in response to legislation proposed by state Republicans, including the expansion of private school vouchers. President Pro Tem Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, is calling it the “largest expansion of school choice” since the state started the Opportunity Scholarship program 10 years ago.

That state of emergency for public education remains in effect.

State legislators this session have proposed to multiply spending on the voucher program by more than five times over the next 10 years. Generally, non-public schools are not held to the same level of accountability as public schools.

As non-public schools receive public funds through Opportunity Scholarships, that should change, a new brief from the Public School Forum recommends.

“North Carolina does not require participating non-public schools to be accredited, nor to have state approval of any kind,” the brief says. “NC also has no requirements around curriculum, teacher preparation or certification, state testing programs, or instructional hours.”

The forum recommends that the state implement these six accountability measures:

  • Require accreditation.
  • Require the administration of state assessments and reports on results.
  • Require aligned curricula.
  • Establish employee requirements.
  • Require enrollment reporting.
  • Require the same financial reporting as public schools.

North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) President Tamika Walker Kelly said NCAE will also continue advocating for more such accountability.

“One of the reasons is that we have public school parents and school districts who continue to go to the legislature year after year to say we need more investment in our public schools,” she said. “And yet, we continue to see diversions of funds into unaccountable entities, where our public schools are accountable to many stakeholders in the public sector.”

The budget

The House released its budget proposal at the end of March. The proposal included a 7.50% across-the-board pay raises for teachers over the biennium, with an average pay raise of 10.2% for teachers slated to get step increases.

The Senate passed its proposal on May 18, including much smaller teacher pay increases along with the drastic expansion of school choice through private school vouchers.

Lawmakers have indicated that votes on a compromise budget can be expected this week. Schools will operate on last year’s funding until a new budget is adopted.

School employees will also not see the proposed raises until a final budget is passed. Republican lawmakers have said those raises will be applied retroactively starting July 1, 2023, once there is a budget.

“As we wait for the budget and enter a new school year, BEST NC remains focused on key elements of teacher compensation that can improve the teacher pipeline so that all students can have access to great teachers,” said Brenda Berg, president and CEO of BEST NC. “The research and our recommendations on teacher pay are described in our new teacher pay report, entitled Teacher Pay in North Carolina: A Smart Investment in Student Achievement.”

CREED is also paying close attention to the budget process, Wilson said. In particular, he said the organization is paying attention to education policy changes wrapped into the budget that could be harmful.

Early childhood

As EdNC has previously reported, the House and Senate budget proposals do not include new child care stabilization funds to avoid a fiscal cliff for providers as federal relief funds dry up at the end of this calendar year.

Extending the child care compensation grants continues to be the N.C. Early Education Coalition’s top priority, said Elaine Zukerman, the coalition’s advocacy and communications director.

“Our child care system is in crisis. Child care is unavailable and unaffordable for parents, and unsustainable for providers and teachers,” she said. “As we face the impending end of federal stabilization funding, the workforce shortages that have plagued the field for many years due to low compensation will only be exacerbated.”

A lack of new funds will only worsen that crisis.

“Without a significant investment, we are facing a funding cliff that will be catastrophic, leading to even more child care teachers leaving the field, additional child care program closures, and even less availability of child care for parents,” she said.

Moving forward, the coalition will continue to build support for child care issues.

This work includes large, collaborative events like Child Care for NC: United for Change, and smaller initiatives like the coalition’s Early Childhood Education Leadership Academies.

“We hope to empower the people most impacted by inadequate and inequitable child care funding and equip them with the tools and resources they need to make their voices heard,” Zukerman said. “Everyone knows someone who depends on child care, and we are excited to continue to bring as many perspectives to the fight for child care funding as possible.”

Educators from Partners in Learning, an early care and education center in Salisbury, hold up signs at the Child Care for NC: United for Change event on April 19, 2023. Katie Dukes/EdNC.

Staffing vacancies

EdNC recently published a report on school district staffing vacancies across the state, based on a survey from the N.C. School Superintendents’ Association. This year, 101 of 115 districts responded to the survey.

The Public School Forum will be releasing research on teacher retention and attrition soon, Wolf said, “an ongoing issue and priority topic for many across the state.”

“The top concern that we have going into the school year is making sure that our schools are well staffed and that every classroom has an educator in front of it,” NCAE’s Walker Kelly said. “While it hasn’t been talked about as much going into this school year, our schools are still facing difficulties around vacancies, both on the educator side and the school support staff side.”

Retention is a key issue here, she added.

“We can recruit people all day long, but if we cannot retain them, then we still have a gap in our educator pipeline,” she said. “In education, we’re losing highly qualified educators who deeply love what they do, but cannot sustain their own livelihoods because of the stagnation in professional wages here in North Carolina.”

New legislation

Last month, the Republican-led General Assembly overrode six bills vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in July, and three have a direct impact on LGBTQ+ youth in North Carolina. Each will now become state law.

One of the laws, Senate Bill 49, the so-called “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” limits instruction of gender identity and sexuality in K-4 classrooms. The legislation also mandates that schools notify parents “prior to any changes in the name or pronoun used for a student in school records or by school personnel,” which LGBTQ+ advocates say will force educators to out students.

Public school advocates raised concerns about such legislation, and how it will impact what happens in the classroom.

“That continues to make educators’ jobs more complex, and burdensome,” Walker Kelly said. “We are deeply concerned about school funding, and all of those other issues and how they impact our our classrooms, and just our ability to teach in general.”

Wilson said he is worried about how schools will go about implementing these policies — as both a parent of students and as a professional.

“We are in coalition with several other organizations that are actively working to push back on some of these extremist policies,” he said. “It’s invigorating to be on on the line with so many folks who are passionate, and who are angry about what’s going on in Raleigh, and about the danger that public schools and our children are in as a result of these bad policies.”

That coalition, H.E.A.L. Together NC, includes CREED, Education Justice Alliance, and Down Home NC. One of the coalition’s initiatives, #PublicSchoolStrong, is working to get parents, students, teachers, and community members involved at school board meetings in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties.

The initiative has more than 300 participants to date, Wilson said.

“(We’re) letting the school board members know and policymakers know that the vast majority of North Carolinians love and support public schools,” he said. “We don’t want this extremist agenda that leaders and folks in the legislature are trying to push through. We want safe, honest, accurate, fully funded education for all children in North Carolina.”

What’s next?

LatinxEd is a nonprofit “actively working to reshape education systems, ensuring they meet the diverse needs of Latinx families,” said Elaine Townsend Utin, the organization’s co-founder and executive director.

“We believe that improving educational outcomes and bringing transformative shifts to the education system for Latinx immigrant families requires substantial investments in Latinx leadership,” she said.

Here are several initiatives that are part of LatinxEd’s work:

  • “More Leaders, More Graduates,” which focuses on leadership development, recruitment, and retention.
  • Leadership development initiatives like the LatinxEd Fellowship, which “fosters an environment aligned with students’ experiences, thereby enhancing their academic journey and socioemotional growth.”
  • LatinxEd’s annual Latinx Education Summit, on Sept. 15-16 in Greensboro, will discuss college access, teacher diversity, mental health, and immigration.
  • Partnerships with educational institutions and community colleges to advance Latinx student success.

“Our work includes supporting undocumented and mixed-status students, ensuring equitable access for all, regardless of immigration status,” Townsend Utin said. “We offer vital information on FAFSA changes, help navigate the Residency Determination System, and empower K-12 educators to assist immigrant families. Recent SCOTUS rulings on affirmative action further underscore the importance of this approach, affirming our core ethos of leveraging community strengths.”

Cristina Espana (left), Melody Gonzales, and Elaine Utin during the first Avanza convening. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

CREED has several upcoming projects, Wilson said.

The organization recently launched CREED Academy in an asynchronous format, with a focus on understanding what equity means. CREED’s Teaching in Color Community will also launch two regional networks this year, with the goal of eventually launching regional networks in each of the state’s eight regions.

And on Oct. 26, CREED will host its Education Policy Chat at Davidson College. This year’s event is focused on school re-segregation — across and within schools.

“A lot of folks don’t realize that schools across the country are really more segregated now than they were in 1970,” he said. “It’s just been a rapid re-segregation, and it has consequences for that quality of education that students are receiving.”

At the Public School Forum, Wolf said the organization plans to review approaches to weighted student funded, and provide education policy information sessions and questionnaires for political candidates as the statewide filing period begins in December.

The organization will also host its “Color of Education” event on Oct. 7 in Raleigh, with a focus on “co-creating equitable spaces.”

As the new school year unfolds, Walker Kelly said the NCAE is focused on telling and uplifting teacher stories about the impact of new legislation in the classroom.

“We’ve been out, knocking on doors, talking to educators all across the state in different communities. And so I’m excited for that work to carry over into the fall, really having one on one conversations with lots of educators, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and in our communities,” she said. “And the strategic plan that our members voted on in the spring has charged us with growing our organization, leading our profession, and protecting and restoring public schools as a marker of a healthy democracy for our state. So we’re really fired up and excited about that.”

If you are an organization advocating for our public schools, please reach out and let us know what issues you are worried about, what you are doing, and how people can get involved. Email me at, and we will make sure to include you in the next advocacy roundup.

Hannah Vinueza McClellan

Hannah McClellan is EducationNC’s senior reporter and covers education news and policy, and faith.