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Perspective | Amid political perplexity, investment in rural schools in play

North Carolina is a state of complexity and perplexity — geographically, demographically, economically, and politically. It is an amalgam of people living in muscular metropolitans regions, small towns grown into outer suburbs, and distressed country places losing population. Old dualities — urban-rural, white-Black, conservative-liberal — do not adequately capture the full reality in one of the nation’s 10 most populous states.

As the highest statewide elected official, a governor has a responsibility to take a wide-angle view in developing a budget to respond to the needs of people and places across regions, counties, and neighborhoods. As officials elected in defined districts, state legislators have a natural propensity to examine how a budget affects their own constituencies.

To give a title to the 2021-23 budget that he has sent to the General Assembly, Gov. Roy Cooper reached for a grand — or perhaps grandiose — phrase: “North Carolina: Strong, Resilient, Ready.” He did not brand it as a rural rescue plan. And yet, the governor’s budget, along with sweeping initiatives by the Biden administration, holds out the prospect of major rural-focused investment in schools, health, and small-business development.

Cooper explicitly links his education agenda to the recent recommendations arising from the Leandro case, which originated in 1994 when five low-wealth counties went to court seeking greater parity in public school finance with more affluent urban districts. “The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated many of the inequities and challenges that are the focus of the Leandro case,” says the governor’s budget document, which also points out that more than $5.5 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds are anticipated for North Carolina school districts and charter schools.

The governor’s budget would expand “support and mentoring” of first-year teachers in high-poverty schools. Also, Cooper would increase the state’s supplement for low-wealth school systems to address, though not close, the gap identified by the Public School Forum in its 2020 study, which found that “the 10 highest spending counties spent on average $3,305 per student compared to an average of $782 per student by the ten lowest spending counties, with a gap of $2,523 per student.”

Even as the pandemic made manifest the extent of the digital divide between school children and in rural communities, it has propelled broadband access to the top of the public agenda. Biden calls for $100 billion to cover the country with high speed internet service, and Cooper envisions no additional state spending needed.

Two big-ticket items in the governor’s budget have no special regional or district targeting, but offer a substantial boost to rural communities. His proposal for pay raises of 10% over two years for teachers and principals, and 7.5% for staff, would enhance middle-class family finances and consumer purchasing power in the 50-plus counties, many rural, where the public school system is the largest employer.

Similarly, his call for bond-financed $2.5 billion in public school construction across all 115 districts would augment the multiple infrastructure components of the Biden plan: $10 billion for upgrading rural water systems, $2 billion for affordable rural housing, and $20 billion to repair smaller, rural bridges.  

In Washington, Republicans, a minority in Congress, so far have stood united in opposition to Biden’s recovery act and his proposed infrastructure package. In contrast in Raleigh, Republicans hold House and Senate majorities and thus, even if they reject the Democratic governor’s proposals, they must produce a budget bill.

And in North Carolina, as across the nation, the Republican base rests heavily on white working class voters; while Democratic strength has clustered in cities, Republicans have become the dominant rural party, with suburbs and small cities as politically contested zones.

In 2020, when more than 5.4 million North Carolinians voted, former Republican President Trump carried the state by a slender 1.4 percentage points over his Democratic opponent; even in counties where Biden won, Trump gained hundreds of thousands of votes. Meanwhile, Trump pulled in landslide majorities in an array of most-distressed Tier One counties — for example, 78% in Alexander, 76% in Avery, 70% in Burke, 63% in Columbus, 60% in Duplin, 65% in Rockingham, 77% in Randolph, 59% in Robeson — an indication of the Republican rural strength.

Budgeting is complex — and politics frequently perplexing — but a moment of possibilities may have arrived for rural schools and communities. In a state as competitive as North Carolina, Democrats surely would like to regain support among rural voters, while Republicans would want to strengthen their base. How well rural schools and their communities fare in the recovery from an awful virus will depend on how Democrats and Republicans respond to the rural-weighted initiatives of the president and the governor.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.