A request from a North Carolina public school graduate

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 23, 2024

By Deanna Townsend-Smith, EdD 

In North Carolina the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution guarantees a public education for every child and includes due process which is often lacking in private school options in N.C.

In 1993, Robeson County residents had a median income of approximately $21,000. Respectively, in 2022, residents of Robeson County had a median income of approximately $35,000. This is the county I grew up in and this county remains one one of North Carolina’s poorest counties. Early in my life, I understood the value of education because my family reinforced that I could do anything I set my mind to do and that in order to succeed in life, an education was necessary. 

As a graduate of the public schools of Robeson County, I experienced a lack of access to rigorous courses, lack of adequate funding for basic school supplies such as textbooks, lack of access to school environments that had adequate resources — both human and monetary — to provide me the opportunity to be prepared post-graduation. This lack of opportunity and access was reinforced when a counselor told my mom that we should not consider an institution of higher education “as I would not succeed.” Imagine going through an experience that failed to see your abilities or brilliance, but instead dismissed you because of your zip code.

Every child deserves access to a free public education that is properly resourced. Thankfully, my county was one of 5 counties that challenged the uneven access students were provided. Because of the advocacy, in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina was not meeting the “basic” educational needs of students. That was over 30 years ago and still today, North Carolina’s educational system remains starved by a legislature that chooses only to provide adequate resources to a select few. Instead of funding North Carolina’s public schools, a majority in the General Assembly chose to act swiftly during this short legislative session to increase private school funding over $243 million after increasing this funding by $526 million during the past long session. Imagine if the same action was taken to fund the 2022 court mandate of $785,106,248 for North Carolina’s public schools. The General Assembly blatantly neglects to uphold its sworn constitutional responsibility and is rendering every North Carolina’s students’ guarantee to a basic education unattainable. 

Public education is the very foundation for good citizenship. While my K-12 experience was not stellar, there were some in my county who understood its value and advocated for better. Today, as citizens of the state, we have the same responsibility to advocate in support of every child attending North Carolina public schools. Fortunately, through an opportunity to attend North Carolina Central University, with access to experienced professors who cared about me, saw my potential and guided my development, I have been able to participate and become a productive citizen contributing to the success of North Carolina through a variety of leadership roles. For the past 23 years, I have been and will forever be a proud educator for North Carolina while also championing the creation of policies and practices that create opportunity and access for every child. 

For the last decade with decisions from the General Assembly to expand and fund choice options, our public schools have not received the resources needed to provide every child with the access needed to appropriately supply basic educational needs. Instead, policies have been created and implemented that deny every child access to the minimally constitutional requirement of a sound basic education. Brown vs. Board of Education, which remains the law of the land, required that “with all deliberate speed we were to dismantle dual school systems.” In North Carolina, policy has reinstated dual school systems that are inherently unequal and deprives every student the right to thrive and survive.

There is a narrative that our public schools are not good or are failing. However, according to the 2024 Teaching Working Conditions, over 90% of respondents indicated that “their school is a good place to work and learn.” Unfortunately, unchecked balances of power resurrect policies of the past at the cost of every child’s future success. Instead of funding public education as mandated in the North Carolina Constitution, the General Assembly chooses to hoard resources in the name of choice instead of providing what is needed to provide quality public schools and then bemoaning the outcomes created through its actions. 

May 17, 2024, marked the 70th anniversary of the Brown v Board decision. The Brown and Leandro decisions both “only” require the basics. Still today, the basics are being denied for certain students and at what cost?

Every child is brilliant and when provided with opportunity through access their potential can be honed and cultivated by educators who work tirelessly each day to prepare them for a global society. In this moment and time we cannot and must not support neutrality. Resources “shall,” per our North Carolina constitution, be “uniformly” resourced to eliminate students attending schools that are under-resourced for the sake of the overprivileged. 

Every child deserves equitable access and opportunity. When will courage emerge and justice prevail to stop the harm to the country’s most precious resource — children and their futures? The history of education deprivation must be stopped if we are to ever fulfill the promises guaranteed in Brown vs. Board of Education and protected in North Carolina’s Constitution. Today, more than 30 years after my graduation from the PSRC, this graduate asks the General Assembly to increase educational opportunity for the 1.5 million children currently attending public schools and at a minimum provide the same funding it granted and proposed for the opportunity scholarship expansion. I wonder if they will have the will to do so?