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'It's inexcusable. It's irresponsible:' NC Democrats call out education underfunding

Representative Zack Hawkins (D-Durham) speaks at a press conference about education funding in downtown Durham. He is surrounded by Rep. Vernetta Alston (D-Durham), Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) and Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham).
Liz Schlemmer
Representative Zack Hawkins (D-Durham) speaks at a press conference about education funding in downtown Durham. He is surrounded by Rep. Vernetta Alston (D-Durham), Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) and Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham).

Democrats in the North Carolina General Assembly held a series of press conferences Monday in cities across the state to call for education funding and the swift passage of a state budget.

State representatives, senators, and education advocates gathered in Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Hillsborough, and Raleigh.

In Durham, Democratic leaders decried Republicans' continued delay in passing a state budget, which holds up proposed raises to teacher pay. The legislative session has been on pause while lawmakers take vacations they planned long ago with the expectation the session would be over by now.

The state budget is supposed to take effect July 1, but House Speaker Tim Moore has said there's no chance of a budget being passed before Labor Day.

“It's inexcusable. It's irresponsible,” said Representative Marcia Morey (D-Durham). “ Schools are ready to start next week, but starting teachers in North Carolina are still ranked 46th to the bottom in teacher pay.”

That ranking comes from a2023 report by the National Education Association. Democrats say chronic underfunding of education is to blame for on-going vacancies of teachers and school staff.

Standing at a podium at the legislature in Raleigh, Representative Julie von Haefen (D-Wake) said school staff vacancies are affecting her own children.

“All of their three schools have struggled to fill teaching positions. Their district is cutting bus routes and teachers are literally worried that their students are not going to be able to make it to school at all,” von Haefen said.

The representative claimed that Republicans have intentionally underfunded schools by cutting state taxes on personal income and corporations and increasing funding for private school vouchers to the tune of $3 billion over the next seven years.

“A deliberate decision has been made in this building to divert resources away from our schools for the last decade,” von Haefen said. “A deliberate decision has been made by the Republican leadership to cut revenue to starve our public schools.”

House Speaker Tim Moore's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before becoming a legislator, von Haefen served as president of the Wake Parent Teacher Association Council. She was joined at the podium Monday by the Wake PTA Council’s current president Teresa Jones, who’s been involved in education advocacy for over 15 years.

“In that time, I have never experienced a situation as dire as the one we are in now,” Jones said. “Because of the legislators inability to prioritize public education, the teacher pipeline has dried up.”

The latest statewide data available on teacher vacancies from the Department of Public Instruction is nearly two years old. In the 2021-2022 school year, there were more than 5,000 teacher vacancies in North Carolina more than a month into the school year. The North Carolina School Superintendents Association is tracking current vacancies for this upcoming school year, and expects to publicly release a report based on a survey of superintendents in early September.

Representative Vernetta Alston (D-Durham) said she recently met with educators in her district who are struggling with whether to stay in the profession.

“The budget delay is making a crisis even worse,” Alston said. “This crisis is a deal breaker for those educators who I met with a few months ago. And if it's a deal breaker for them, it should be a deal breaker for all of us.”

Copyright 2023 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.