In case you hadn’t noticed, North Carolina public schools, along with the children and teachers who inhabit them, are suffering mightily these days.
The Public School Forum of North Carolina reports that the number of youth suicides in our state has doubled in recent years, and that there’s been a 46% increase in the number of kids who have suffered with one or more “major depressive episodes” since the start of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, thousands of educators are voting on the state of our public schools with their feet. As Greg Childress of NC Policy Watch reported recently, North Carolina public schools faced a 46% increase in teacher vacancies last August when compared to the previous year. By the 40th day of the current school year, that number had soared to a remarkable and downright frightening 58%.
The causes of this suffering and depopulation are numerous and no particular mystery.
The world is only just emerging from a deadly and hugely traumatic pandemic that’s killed nearly 30,000 North Carolinians while physically and emotionally scarring millions more. It would be surprising if such a disaster hadn’t taken a gigantic toll.
That said, we know that other important factors are at play. The state’s lowest-in-the nation education spending (Alabama, for instance, has left us in the dust) and the pitiful salaries and poor working conditions to which it gives rise are obviously a huge factor in the teacher shortage.
Meanwhile, it’s not just the pandemic that’s harmed our kids. They understand that their schools and the adults who run them are stretched and stressed. The campuses to which they travel each day are no longer the safe havens that their parents and grandparents knew.
Indeed, gun violence driven by easy access to firearms has become so pervasive (Wake County experienced multiple lockdowns last Friday alone) that surveys find getting shot is now the top fear for a huge percentage of students. The enormously powerful and frequently destructive tool of social media — particularly when it’s used for bullying kids who are “different” — only adds to the widespread angst, violence and suffering.
If ever a situation cried out for urgent, all-hands-on-deck action from state leaders to use every tool at their disposal to restore and rebuild our state’s most important public institution as a warm, caring and safe place for our children, this is it. Their futures, and even their lives, depend on it.
Unfortunately, as was made clear last week, Republican state legislative leaders have a different priority for our schools in 2023: waging a politically motivated culture war.
This tragic fact was evidenced last week when the GOP lawmakers rolled out their first high-profile education policy proposal of the new session in Raleigh: a misnamed measure called the “Parents Bill of Rights” that critics rightfully describe and assail as North Carolina’s version of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Though promoted as a scheme to empower parents — a sponsor described it as an effort to prevent “government schools” from indoctrinating students in ways contrary to their family’s values — the bill is really as a practical matter, about three main issues:
- outing LGBTQ kids,
- banning obvious classroom questions and discussions that curious kids living in the 21st century will inevitably pursue
- and demonizing LGBTQ people, while sending the message that they constitute a lesser and unmentionable class of people.
As one former public schoolteacher insightfully explained to the committee considering the measure:
This bill perpetuates the harm of silencing queer youth and keeping communities ignorant instead of providing the information necessary for folks to understand and support one another. Under the guise of parental rights, you are trying to criminalize queerness. You want your children to share their pronouns and come out to you rather than legislating educators to traumatically out them? Try creating an inclusive environment at home that supports your child’s safety.”
In other words, as with past efforts to crudely censor topics like sex education and the history of race in America, the “Parents Bill of Rights” isn’t so much about “rights” as it is about control and turning back the clock to prevent open and honest discussions (and the sharing of accurate information) with children for whom it would be hugely beneficial.
The bottom line: While the sponsors and supporters of the legislation may not have noticed or be willing to admit it, the LGBTQ genie is — permanently and at long last — out of the bottle in our culture, and our kids can handle it. What they and their teachers need now is not judgment, censorship and silence, but love, support and accurate information.
And it’s in light of this reality that the so-called Parents Bill of Rights bill represents a case of wasted energy and badly misplaced priorities at a time in which our schools can least afford to wander down such a road.