State policy leaders spoke out on education issues Wednesday at the “Advocacy Day for Making Rural School Districts a Priority.”
The event, hosted by retired Congresswoman Eva Clayton at the State Department of Public Instruction, brought together a diverse group of legislators and education experts to discuss a variety of hot topics related to North Carolina schools, including the disparity in teacher pay between rural districts and their urban neighbors.
“Why would a teacher stay in Anson County and teach when they can go one county over and make a 15 minute drive, 20 minute drive, and make $5,000 more?” asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow. “That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?”
He was talking about the issue of local supplements. While the state provides a base level of pay for teachers in the state, local districts may supplement that pay with local funds. Some rural areas, like Anson County, can’t afford as much supplemental pay as larger districts. They lose teachers as a result.
“I think it’s a real issue that we’ve got to figure out real soon if we’re gonna expect teachers to go into some of these rural areas and teach these students and make a difference,” Brown said. “That’s a high priority for me.”
In the video below, he is talking about the two biggest local education funding challenges counties face.
Brown was one of the state policy leaders who delivered opening remarks at the event before more detailed discussions took place on education issues affecting rural areas.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest also helped launch the event by talking about the progress North Carolina has made in bridging the digital divide in the state.
He said that five years ago, before he was in his current position, he thought the state could lead the nation in high speed broadband access to classrooms. Now, North Carolina is on the verge of achieving that goal. That will help “students in poor rural North Carolina have the same hope and opportunity for an excellent education as students in wealthier parts of our state that have had for years,” he said.
He also decried the fact that even with all the technological advances, the education field still is not level.
“Shame on us in this day and age that we still have schools that are not at par with one another across our state,” he said.
He said that he thinks the state can also be the first in bringing connectivity “the last mile” — meaning students have Internet not just at school but at home as well.
The capstone of the event were comments from House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, and State Board of Education member Reginald Kenan. Kenan spoke in place of Governor Roy Cooper who was originally scheduled to attend.
Jackson and Kenan both spoke about Cooper’s education plan, including his budget proposal to increase teacher pay by 5 percent this fiscal year and 5 percent next fiscal year.
“That will put us on the path to getting to the top of the Southeast,” Jackson said.
Jackson also said that the state needs to focus funding more on education.
“In my opinion, we need to stop prioritizing tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations,” he said. “That money is better invested in public education.”
Jackson said the money the state spends on teacher pay will keep money in rural areas. He noted that Cooper’s budget includes a $150 annual stipend for teachers to buy classroom supplies, a benefit that would also serve rural districts’ economies.
“We recognize that you are already doing that and we want to help you in that effort,” he said.
Nearly 40 percent of the state’s students are educated in rural areas, Kenan said, and yet some counties still do not have the resources or the connectivity they need. The proposals in Cooper’s budget show the governor’s commitment to education, Kenan said.
“The governor himself is from Nash County. His mother was a former teacher, so he knows about education,” he said. “He has committed himself to improve education.”
But Kenan said the state needs input from constituents in rural communities if it is going to bridge the divide between rural and urban school districts.
“That’s the only way that we move the state forward,” he said.