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Gary Pearce: Pandemic imperils public schools

By Gary Pearce

The COVID-19 pandemic shows how we dump society’s problems on public schools, but don’t give them enough money to meet those challenges.

Six months of lockdown should remind us that schools provide more than education.

Working parents depend on schools for childcare. Children in poverty often depend on schools for decent meals and safe shelter.  Many children depend on schools for the love, care and attention they don’t get at home.

Schools have to protect students from society’s epidemic of evils – from bullying in the lunchroom to sexual abuse to vicious gunmen with military assault weapons.

During COVID, parents have learned the hard way that home-schooling can get old fast. They’ve learned that teachers aren’t paid nearly enough.

Underpaid as they are, teachers would take a bullet to save their students. Do we also expect them to risk catching a vicious virus – and passing it on to their own families – so we can get our kids out of the house?

A teacher told me that many of her peers are preparing wills as they prepare for back-to-school.

Some parents send their children to private schools because they are more willing than public schools to reopen. Private Thales Academy in Wake County reopened its schools in July. Its Knightdale campus immediately reported a COVID case. Then a case at Thales’ Wake Forest campus forced the entire fourth grade to be quarantined for at least two weeks.

One Wake County principal pleaded with parents not to turn to private schools. Schools’ budgets are based on attendance; if attendance drops, budgets will be cut and teachers and staff, let go.

Unlike private schools and charter schools, traditional public schools can’t pick their students. They have to take whoever shows up and provide whatever they need.

The same politicians who push hardest for private schools are pushing hardest for public schools to reopen.

President Trump said in July that public schools teach children “to hate their own country.” Now he says they should reopen fully. In North Carolina, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and State Senator Phil Berger criticize Governor Roy Cooper for not ordering all public schools to reopen.

Ferrel Guillory, who has observed North Carolina politics and government for nearly 50 years as a journalist, UNC-Chapel Hill professor and Vice Chairman of EducationNC, wrote recently that:

“…(A)fter their party won the governorship and solid legislative majorities in 2012, Republican lawmakers went on a tax-cut spree, reducing sales, corporate, and individual income taxes. Tax changes since 2013, according to a pre-pandemic joint assessment of legislative and administration budget staffs, reduced annual general fund revenues by more than $4 billion in 2019-2020.”

Public schools could use some of that $4 billion today.

Governor Cooper says K-12 schools, colleges, and universities need federal money:

“Without it, these institutions will not be able to purchase the essential cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and other materials necessary to create a safe and productive learning environment, including the ability to pay teachers and staff who will be on the frontlines of the pandemic. We also must ensure our ability to address nutrition for students, both those in school and those distance learning.”

Plus, the state is under the Leandro court order to meet the North Carolina Constitution’s requirement of “a sound, basic education for all children.” Price tag: $427 million.

As Guillory noted, we need “a serious open discussion of revenues required for educational advancement.”

The pandemic shows how much we need our public schools — and how much we expect of them. Our support should match our expectations. We should put our money where our children are.

Gary Pearce blogs at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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