Education was a hot button issue this Friday, May 22, with the N.C. House casting a final bipartisan vote of 93-23 in favor of the $21 billion spending budget, which increased funding for schools including a 2 percent bump in teacher salaries. This meant that a visit from Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, who spoke today at an Asheville City Schools Foundation event, could not have come at a more relevant time.
The event, “Students, Teachers and Schools: Who’s Got Their Backs?,” was held at Vance Elementary School and hosted by Kate Pett, executive director of ACSF. Many attendees wore red apparel to symbolize their support for public education in North Carolina.
In a speech beginning the meeting, Steve Agan, ACSF board member and chair of the advocacy team, said, “We believe protecting and improving public education is critical for creating a sustainable and equitable community.”
Agan then opened the floor to Van Duyn, who discussed current issues involving education and legislation and answered questions from parents and teachers.
“The House has passed a budget with a 2 percent across the board increase for teachers, and they will raise starting salaries to $35,000,” Van Duyn said. “That is not anywhere near close to the national average, and we were at the national average before the recession. We need to be there again. Our teachers deserve that.”
She went on to quote a statistic that says only a third of teachers in North Carolina qualify for public assistance. “That’s just not right,” she added.
Van Duyn asserted that the legislators shifted the “tax burden” from the upper class and corporations to the middle- and lower-class in two ways: by flattening the tax brackets and cutting taxes for corporations.“So the Senate side of the North Carolina legislature has made it clear that’s the path that they are determined to take,” she said. “Their endgame is to eliminate the personal income tax. That sounds great, but education is the biggest part of the budget.
“We cannot fund education if we continue to give tax breaks to people who do not need them and are not asking for them,” she continued.
Funding for school materials, such as textbooks, is also a problem and is “insufficient,” Van Duyn added.
During the question portion of the event, the audience submitted hand-written queries, which Pett read aloud for Van Duyn to answer.
One question addressed the passage of the House budget bill and the proposal of $1 million to go to nonprofits to build more charter schools. The audience member asked whether the Senate will keep this item in the budget.
“I cannot say what the Senate will do,” Van Duyn responded. “I can say that I will oppose that, and I will speak against that. What this is, is a provision to give a nonprofit — a religiously oriented nonprofit — money to develop more charter schools in rural areas.
“I have no problem with charter schools,” she added. “However, when it comes to taking your tax dollars, we need to fully fund our public schools first before we start giving money to nonprofits to develop all kinds of other schools.”
When asked about state funding for prekindergarten programs for every school and the prospects for pre-K funding in the final budget, Van Duyn responded by saying that she didn’t believe that the Senate would make any additional cuts to pre-K funding, but that funds would not “expand” either. In her response, Van Duyn also discussed the importance of childcare vouchers, early development programs from birth to age two and communication with children. She later added that while she does not anticipate pre-K funding to expand, it is something she will work for.
“I have not seen the Senate budget,” Van Duyn said. “That will probably be coming out in a week or two, and I would love to do this [event] again, particularly when we are finished, to let you know how things really ended up.”
In closing the event, Pett commented on the budget approved today, noting, “No one who cares about children should be satisfied with a 2 percent raise for our teachers. It’s really unacceptable.”
Pett also encouraged attendees to remain active in education issues. “Please continue to raise your voice and together, let’s get North Carolina back to being the pride of the South for public education,” she said.
Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, was also scheduled to speak at this event, but was not able to attend due to voting on the budget in Raleigh.