The state board of education ignored the needs of the teachers and schools with its decision last week to misuse federal disaster relief funds to begin paying for the state’s obligations to provide equitable education statewide. In essence the board voted to abuse federal disaster funds to finance long term education obligations that should be handled through the normal state budgeting process.
In a seven to three decision, not surprisingly split on partisan lines, the board of education voted to direct $39 million from the $390 million disaster funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act originally destined for the state’s K-12 public schools to help cover unexpected expenses created by the Coronavirus pandemic as the traditional school year begins. Six board members appointed by Governor Cooper, along with the board chairman Eric Davis, who was appointed by Governor McCrory, outvoted the three Republicans on the board to move some of the disaster funds to an eight-year funding project to satisfy a previous court ordered school remediation program to provide adequate education statewide as determined in the Leandro vs. State of N.C. lawsuit.
The Leandro school funding case began in 1994 when school districts in 5 counties, Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland sued the state. In 1997 the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on the grounds that the state’s constitution guaranteed a sound basic education, which the court determined was being denied to children in poor communities.
Now, 23 years after the court decision, the state and plaintiffs have agreed to budget $427 million in education funding to remediate the problem. This is an on-going, chronic issue for the state and as such should be dealt with as part of the state’s budgeting process and should not involve federal disaster funds. But the state board of education, seeing easy government money, decided to use some of the CARES funding to kick start the remedial action.
This plan is worrisome because it is an inappropriate use of the federal funds and presents a one-time source of funding that will not be available in the years ahead. In addition to being bad money management, the state board’s decision ignores the immediate needs for schools, teachers and parents.
The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) presented a plan for the board of education’s consideration that would utilize the $39 million to assist teachers and parents. One portion of the funds, $15 million, was designated to help schools pay child care for families when students are using remote learning.
Mark Johnson, N.C. Schools Superintendent, noted that these funds would be very important for working families, particularly teachers. “This is federal disaster relief funding and it is meant to be sent out in way that supports children and families and we need to use equity when we do this,” he told a News & Observer reporter prior to the school board’s vote.
The predominantly Democrat education board, which has a long history of conflicts with the Republican superintendent, decided instead to reduce child care support to only $4.5 million, directing the remaining funds to a variety of programs oriented to funding the states long term responsibility for providing equity education as a result of the Leandro decision.
Among the programs to be funded by the board of education decision are $10 million for services to exceptional children and $4.5 million to employ “turn around” coaches in the DPI to work with low-performing schools. All of these programs are commendable but do not fall under the rubric of disaster relief. And, since they are long term initiatives, they will need on-going funding once the disaster dollars are depleted, which is how bureaucratic programs are created. An emergency need is funded and then excuses are found to maintain the program after the disaster passes.
The decision by the state board of education is probably not illegal but it surely comes close. More importantly its sets a standard that any state department can interpret the use of disaster funding as it sees fit and in the process sends a message to those who were the intended recipients that they are basically good bait for acquiring federal funds.
What is surprising about this decision is the silence from the state’s teachers’ union, the N.C. Association of Educators. There has been no cry of foul play by the union which bills itself as the primary voice of teachers. We wonder why?
Local school boards and educators should not stand quietly by as the state education board misuses federal disaster funds. The immediate need is not more bureaucrats in DPI offices in Raleigh; the immediate need is aid for teachers and schools as they persevere in the face of an unprecedented disaster.