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Perspective | What matters in the new school year

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The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the August 2023 episode of Education Matters on Back-to-School 2023-24. 

Students across North Carolina are back in school. Over 1.4 million students in our public schools approached the school year ready to learn, and our educators met those students with enthusiasm and care to guide them to reach their potential. Unfortunately, many students and educators around the state were also met with a number of interruptions during the first week of school for the 2023-24 year.

On Monday, August 28 a shooting took place on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, claiming the life of one faculty member and causing Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to undergo a lockdown on the very first day of school. Various schools in other districts experienced delayed or interrupted instruction caused by issues with air conditioning systems. Many Wake County students arrived at school late because of a shortage of bus drivers. The Alamance-Burlington School System was forced to push its first day of instruction to September 5 due to mold in multiple school buildings. This is all in addition to ongoing teacher shortages, leaving many classes to be taught by substitute teachers or those not specializing in the subject area.

It doesn’t have to be this way. While there are so many things that we can not change, these are all areas that we could address, prevent, and make better for every student across North Carolina and our communities through policy action.  

One of the most central purposes of our state government is to support a strong system of public schools that will pave the way for a strong democracy, society, and economy. Yet, over the past few months alone, we’ve heard so many proposed bills, recommended ideas, and other rhetoric that seems to forget and detract from that purpose. All the while, we did not have a state budget, so each and every one of our 116 school districts started their fiscal year (July 1) and now the school year without a firm budget in place.

Kids matter. It is in the best interest of every North Carolina resident to invest in our children, our families, and our communities and ensure that children feel safe, supported, and ready to learn in their schools. Parents note that the safety and mental health of their children is a top priority. Yet, North Carolina’s ratios of school-based mental health support personnel are far higher than recommended, and this year, the General Assembly passed a law to make it even easier to purchase guns in the state of North Carolina. 

Teachers matter. Teachers are the number one school-related factor influencing student outcomes. We have an unprecedented shortage of teachers across our state, affecting public, charter and private schools alike. Last year, there were over 5,000 public school educator vacancies, impacting thousands and thousands of students. Despite the amazing efforts and impact of our teachers, our pipeline is dwindling and will not come even close to meeting the demand. Yet, NC’s beginning teachers make $37,000 on the state salary schedule. In May, the NC Senate proposed a budget that only includes a 4.5% average raise over 2 years with only $250 for our teachers with 15+ years of experience. While the budgets presented by the NC House and Governor have stronger compensation proposals, the final budget has yet to be passed by the legislature and the recommended conference compensation has not yet been shared.

Budgets matter. No business would start the fiscal year without a budget. Yet, once again, our school districts are beginning their year without a budget. They do not know how much money they will have, but they are expected to be prepared to serve every child. Uncertainty around funding hampers school districts’ ability to hire staff, update curriculum, and implement programs that ensure our students’ success. School districts are multi-million dollar enterprises (and often the largest employer in each county), yet they must go into the year without full knowledge of what they can spend to educate their students, which is further complicated by the cliff from COVID relief. 

Neglecting our public school students compromises their futures and the future of our state overall. It is critical that our state leaders focus their attention on policies to support every child’s academic, emotional, and physical well-being. We must unite in our commitment to a high-quality education for ALL kids that leads to a healthy and prosperous future for our state. Kids matter.

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.