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Perspective | Never a better time to invest in high quality public education

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The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the July 17, 2021 broadcast of Education Matters: “A Conversation with National Leaders.” 

I have frequently mentioned that the pandemic has reminded me more than ever that our public schools truly are the hubs of our communities. From providing the time and space for students to develop deep social connections with peers and adults; ensuring students nutritional and mental health needs are met each and every day; to meeting the academic needs and goals of our students — our schools play a crucial role in shaping and supporting each of our communities.

With 1.4 million students in our state’s public schools, representing well over 90% of our K-12 students — and even more when you consider our public community colleges and universities — our schools are vital for our students, our families, and our state.

This week I had the opportunity to talk with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina after their visit to Charlotte. Both reminded me of the many leaders we have who understand how our public schools serve the public good. They are working to ensure that our schools and school districts have the financial, community, and human resources they need to provide a sound basic education for all students that ensures every child is positioned to reach their full potential.

They reiterated the heroic efforts our educators and staff, from teachers to bus drivers, to food and nutrition, to district leaders have played in meeting the moment and the students’ needs.

Before our broadcast’s discussion, Adams and Cardona had the opportunity to tour Paw Creek Elementary School in Charlotte, and visit Camp CMS, led by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It is a is a free, full-day, in-person summer experience for K-12 students who need additional supports.

It’s just one example of the innovative programs that are being offered across all of our school districts this summer, designed to address academic gaps that students have had both before and after the pandemic. They are a great example of how federal COVID recovery support partnered with state and local resources can help pave the way for our schools and districts to emerge stronger than ever in the wake of COVID-19.

However, federal COVID funds are designed to pull us through a period of recovery. In order to maintain the strong foundations we are building, we must make sustainable, recurring state investments in our public schools in order to ensure our children — and their children — are set up for educational success for generations to come.

Cardona and Adams echoed what state, local, school, and teacher leaders in North Carolina share in terms of the investments we need for our schools and our students.

We need investments in teachers, who are the number one school-related factor that impacts student outcomes. We also need to invest in principals, who are second only to teachers in potential to affect our children’s outcomes. We must build pathways to postsecondary opportunities and attainment of high quality credentials and degrees. We must invest in early childhood opportunities and after school programs, which we continue to have a shortage of in North Carolina.

I appreciated how Adams reminded us that these are investments in our future — not a burden or a cost — but true investments that are critical not only for our students and our families — but for North Carolina, our economy, and our communities.

As we continue budget negotiations this summer for the 2021-23 budget cycle, remember that our state has an additional $6.5 billion in state revenues to spend over the next two years — positioning us well to make strong investments in our schools.

There’s never been a better time to invest in our young people and the necessary supports that ensure they receive a high quality public education — let’s do it now, and let’s do it with strong, recurring investments that will pay dividends over the decades to come.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.