Featured photo: Members of the Forsyth County Association of Educators protest for more public education funding. (photo by Margaret Ritsch)

Educators, staff and allies in both Guilford and Winston-Salem/Forsyth public school districts marched and rallied this past week, outraged by the loss of millions in public school funding from the state just as the NC General Assembly has expanded the voucher program to benefit even the wealthiest families.  

“We’re experiencing a crisis across the state,” said Jenny Easter, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators to the crowd at Merschel Park in downtown Winston-Salem on Monday. “It’s unfair to lean so hard on our commissioners to fill the ever-increasing gap that our state has caused, but what will happen if we don’t?”

Members of the Forsyth County Association of Educators protest for more public education funding. (photo by Margaret Ritsch)

Members of the Guilford County Association of Educators also spoke at public hearings on their counties’ proposed budgets after their own rallies. In Greensboro, Tessa Pendley, an English language teacher at Union Hill Elementary, charged the NC General Assembly with creating an emergency. 

“Attacks on public schools continue to intensify with the latest attack being a voucher-expansion bill that funds private schools for the wealthiest families in North Carolina at the expense of public schools,” she said at the rally.  

“Catastrophic underfunding by the state legislature that includes the movement of hundreds of millions to the private school voucher program expansion, combined with the expiration of federal pandemic relief funds at the end of this school year, adds to the urgency of additional funding from the county,” the FCAE said in a recent press release. 

A history of underfunding public schools

The Opportunity Scholarship program, which was created by NC lawmakers in 2013, provides vouchers to K-12 students that can be used to pay for tuition, equipment and transportation at non-public schools. Since the program began 10 years ago it has historically served low-income children. But last year the state expanded the program to universal eligibility, so wealthy families can now apply.  The highest awards go to low-income families but not by much. A family of three earning $47,767 would receive a voucher worth $7,468, and a three-person family earning $214,952 would receive a voucher worth $4,480, for example. 

To expand eligibility, the General Assembly has boosted funding for the voucher program from $191.54 million in 2024-25 to $415.54 million in 2025-26, and another $15 million to be allotted annually thereafter, according to Ed Choice, an public-school advocacy group.  

Beverly Bard, a retired teacher and member of the “Raging Grannies,” a group of senior GCAE allies who sang at the rally, said she was outraged that the voucher program now accepts children from high-income families. 

“We’re here because we like what this group is doing,” she said. “Tax dollars that everyone pays should stay in public schools.” 

How much is each school board asking for?

The GCAE also urged county commissioners to reconsider the board of education’s budget request and boost the allocation for the Guilford County School District. The proposed budget underfunds public schools by about $45 million less than what the board requested, according to a GCAE press release. The union understands the county is unable to fully fund the school budget request, according to the press release, but the school district needs at least another $3.5 million more than the county manager’s proposal to function, the group says. 

Members of the Guilford County Association of Educators protest with their families for more public education funding. (photo by Margaret Ritsch)

In a telephone interview, Guilford Commissioner Mary Beth Murphy said the commissioners are holding budget work sessions and hope the county manager can find funds to increase the school district’s allocation. But funding the school system’s budget request would require a 8-cent property tax increase, she said, and obviously this is not on the table. 

“One of the challenges we are facing is extremely limited revenues,” Murphy said. One factor is that debt service payments for capital projects will increase from $77 million last year to $99 million this year.   

“I’m angry that we’re in this position because of the state’s failure,” she said. “It’s just an awful reality this year.”

The FCAE also called on the Forsyth commissioners to allocate an additional $20 million to public schools over the county’s proposed $175.8 million budget for 2024-25.  The union is asking for more funding for pre-kindergarten classrooms, school nurses, social workers and a salary supplement for teachers with master’s degrees. North Carolina no longer pays salary supplements for educators with advanced degrees.

Forsyth county commissioners may approve their 2024-25 budget as early as this Thursday during a special called meeting. If the budget isn’t adopted by the commissioners on June 13, they would consider it at a later meeting in June, but prior to June 30 as required by the North Carolina General Statutes. Guilford county commissioners are scheduled to adopt their budget on June 20.

Guilford County Commissioner Mary Beth Murphy

Murphy as well as speakers at the FCAE rally asserted that the General Assembly must begin implementing the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. Leandro refers to the NC Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1997 that affirmed the right of every child to a “sound basic education.” 

The detailed remedial plan recommends overhauling the school finance system, improving recruitment, salaries and training of high-quality teachers and principals, increasing support for low-performing schools, expanding the availability of pre-kindergarten and aligning high school education to post-secondary and career opportunities. The plan is supposed to be fully implemented by 2028 and requires a recurring investment of $5.54 billion in state dollars. 

Judge E. David Lee signed the Leandro consent order in 2020, noting: “North Carolina’s Pre-K-12 public education system leaves too many students behind, especially students of color and economically disadvantaged students. As a result, thousands of students are not being prepared for full participation in the global, interconnected economy and the society in which they will live, work, and engage as citizens.”

Keeping public dollars in public schools

At the Greensboro rally, Ingrid Chen McCarthy, a business owner and mother of two children at Lindley Elementary School, said, “I can only imagine what our staff and students and teachers could do if we had that full [state] funding.” Referring to the state voucher program, McCrthy said, “I don’t want my tax dollars going toward schools that are not being held accountable for who they accept, what they teach, or what special needs they can accommodate.”

Members of the Guilford County Association of Educators protest for more public education funding. (photo by Margaret Ritsch)

In an encouraging sign for Guilford County schools, Commissioner Murphy presented the commission’s statement of support for increased state funding for public education at Thursday’s hearing. Murphy, also a teacher and GCAE member, read the lengthy statement to a packed audience. 

“This failure of our state government to adequately fund public schools — which is their constitutional mandate — leaves local governments, and ultimately Guilford County taxpayers, in an impossible position,” Murphy said. She noted a 2022 Education Law Center report that said North Carolina ranked 50th in the nation in the overall funding effort for public schools (in 2022). 

Pendley and other speakers also urged Guilford commissioners to pledge never to never use property taxes to appropriate capital funds for charter schools. Last year the General Assembly passed a Charter School Omnibus bill that, among other things, authorizes counties to provide capital funds for charter schools. Charter schools can use the funds to buy property (for school sites, playgrounds or athletic fields), for construction and renovation (including libraries, gyms and auditoriums), and furnishings and equipment (including instructional technology and computers). While the county did not include such a capital outlay for charter schools in this year’s proposed budget, the GCAE wants to head this off in the future, Pendley said. 

Union supporters in the greater region joined the rally. Cecile “CC” Crawford, program director for the American Friends Service Committee North Carolina, told the teachers and staff that “only through organizing do you get what you need … this tells the state that power is coming.” Crawford said grassroots organizing is on the rise in North Carolina, including tenant unions starting up across the state. 

In Winston-Salem, the loudest clamor came when Rev. Dr. Paul Robeson Ford with Action 4 Equity went to the podium, shouting. 

“When we talk about fully funding our public schools, we can itemize each of the issues that we need: More money for teachers who are overworked and underpaid, more money for school bus drivers who are overworked and underpaid, more money for behavioral support, because that’s the only way that teachers can focus on teaching,” he said.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡