Debra Mullis Headshot

North Carolina public schools had a rough time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools had to adapt first to fully online learning, then to hybrid education and now to mostly in-person instruction that has to juggle learning and students’ safety. But now, schools may have to find a way to function with almost $132 million in budget cuts mid-year. 

The reason for these budget cuts is an overall 4.3% drop in enrollment since the 2019-2020 school year. Since 2015, there has been a steady rise in charter, private and home school attendance, but the drop in enrollment at public schools was particularly steep during 2020. Some experts, like director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation Terry Stoops, believe enrollment may never rebound to pre-pandemic levels because of the trend towards alternative schools and the falling birth rate. 

Instead of seeing lower numbers as an excuse to cut school funding, lawmakers in the General Assembly should see this shift as an opportunity to improve the education experience for both students and teachers. 

What attracts many parents and students to charter schools, which have had an 188% rise in enrollment over the past 10 years, is creative teaching, typically smaller class sizes and more educational choices for students. 

Cutting school funding will not incentivize the students who left the school system last year to return. Even operating on a budget based on 2019 enrollment numbers, schools are facing terrible staffing shortages, specifically support roles. Teachers are giving up their planning periods to act as subs for vacant positions. If the estimated budget cuts go through, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district will lose $15.2 million, which is equivalent to 220 teachers. 

When teachers are stretched thin by filling multiple roles, it is much harder for them to provide individualized instruction, creative lesson plans and the varied teaching styles students need in the classroom. Students are also lacking in readily available mental health care or special education. There are entire school districts without a designated psychologist.

The effects of these issues are already in motion. Data was released this year from the NC Department of Education showing only 24% of students grades three through eight passed their end-of-grade reading assessments during 2020-21. While tests do not show the full picture of student achievement, especially in an anomalous year like 2020, they are one of the best and only indicators we have of what students are learning, or not learning. 

The students in school right now do not deserve any education other than one that is very well funded. Increasing staff pay to solve the staffing crisis in schools needs to be the first of many steps. The shrinking enrollment numbers are naturally reducing the student population at some schools, but this doesn’t mean staff should reduce too. To rebound from virtual learning difficulties, students will need lots of time, which can only be provided by a large, well-equipped staff. In the current labor market, this can only come from increased wages. 

While this will be an expensive endeavor for the state, students are well worth it. If general compassion is not enough to convince North Carolina lawmakers to pass a sufficient education budget, then economics should. The future workforce of our state is suffering in our schools right now. The manifest function of schools is to create a productive new generation of employees. If schools continue to fall behind, they will create poor future economic prospects for North Carolinians, especially those who are already disadvantaged.

This is not the first time in history North Carolina has been accused of under-funding its education system. In 1994, the Leandro v. State of North Carolina Supreme Court case ruled the rights of thousands of school children had been violated by the state because they were not provided adequate education. North Carolina is still falling below national standards to the extent that a judge had to order compliance with the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. 

Already, students have experienced declining mental health and declining test scores; they do not need to also take on a decline in funding just because enrollment numbers are dropping a bit. Classrooms can recover from the detriments of over a year of virtual learning and a highly contagious virus, but it will take money. Schools deserve this money, and if the state makes investments now, there will be long-term benefits. If North Carolina continues to skimp on school budgets, ramifications will follow for years to come.