As a first grade student, I had tremendous difficulty learning how to read. I was at least a grade behind my peers in terms of literacy, and the shame and dread I felt when I thought about school is still vivid some twenty years later. Public school education has long been heralded as the great equalizer in the United States, yet growing inequalities in public school funding threatens to close the doors of opportunity that help struggling students succeed. The Great Recession of 2007 and its continued effects have taken a calamitous toll on state funding for public education, to the detriment of North Carolina communities and our most vulnerable students.
I write today as a graduate student who used to be one of these vulnerable kids. Fortunately for me, a dedicated teaching assistant noticed my struggles and tears and took me aside for weekly tutoring with another student who was also behind. Not only was I caught up with my peers within the year, but I exceeded the average literacy benchmark within the next two years. I mention this latter fact merely to illustrate the effectiveness of our teaching assistants. I often reflect upon the choices and individuals who helped me get to where I am today, and that first grade-teaching assistant is arguably the most pivotal figure. My family was not in a position to hire a private tutor, so my education rested solely in the hands of my elementary school. Here was an individual who turned a student’s dread and achievement gap into a fierce love for school and learning that continues to this day. But where would I be today without her tireless efforts? A seemingly minor gap that begins in first grade can become a gargantuan obstacle to success by the end of high school. How many future generations of college students, doctors, engineers, and lawyers are we losing because of budget cuts to instrumental teaching assistants and other educational essentials?
North Carolina has cut general funding per student by approximately 10 percent since 2008, and continues to implement further budget cuts despite pronounced improvements in the economy. While North Carolina has increased per pupil expenditures in recent years, the combined sum of these increases fail to account for the accumulation of budget cuts enacted since 2008. Similarly, teacher salaries have increased the past two years, yet North Carolina continues to rank 41st nationally in the 2015-2016 school year compared to 25th in 2008-2009. Dramatic cuts to state support for our public schools has left the burden of funding differences primarily upon local counties. Local funding varies dramatically across counties due to large differences in the revenue generated by property and sales and use taxes. Diminishing financial support of public schools has exacerbated the challenges faced by children living in poverty.
As the divide between the richest and poorest families has continued to grow at a significant rate, income-related student achievement gaps have further widened. While the achievement disparity between white and black students remains of considerable concern, particularly in North Carolina, income has now eclipsed race as the most substantial division within our education system.
Our legislators are currently considering removing the smaller class size cap, and allowing local counties to decide how to spend scarce resources on education essentials like teaching assistants, art and PE teachers, counselors, and social workers. But wouldn’t it be great if North Carolina funded both smaller class sizes and the other necessary school positions so that poor children and poor communities aren't forced between a rock and hard place? These positions are too important to ensure that only some of North Carolina's children can access a well-supported, well-rounded education.
Take it from a former struggling student, inadequate funding can have enormous consequences on the rest of our students’ lives.
Rebecca Abide is an MSW candidate at Western Carolina University; she is currently completing her field practicum with Asheville City Schools Foundation.