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Chris Fitzsimon: Signs of the new North Carolina

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RALEIGH —The stories don’t seem to have much in common at first.

There are the accounts of 2,500 people in line in Charlotte before 6 on a Friday morning when the free dental clinic opens. There’s a similar scene in Raleigh the weekend before, people waiting outside the RBC Center for free dental care, some of whom had driven hundreds of miles and slept in their cars for the chance to see a dentist for the first time in several years.

Then there are the back to school stories like the one from Johnston County where the Clayton Chamber of Commerce puts a cardboard box shaped like a school bus in local stores to take donations of school supplies.

Similar stories are reported across the state, businesses and nonprofits scrambling to collect supplies or the money to buy them.

Most years these drives collect supplies for children in low-income families because their parents can’t afford them and there are even more of those parents this fall as jobs remain tough to come by and thousands of state employees have been fired.

But this year the school supplies aren’t just for the students, they are for the schools themselves, the ones that state and local governments are supposed to fund to give every student a sound basic, education.

The stories about the free dental clinics focused on the grace of the dentists who volunteered their time and how much it meant to the people who attended, to finally have that cavity filled and their pain relieved.

There was little mention of the absurdity of people sleeping in their cars or driving several hours for their only chance to see a dentist, in what remains the richest country on Earth. The stories didn’t report that the budget passed by the General Assembly this summer will force state officials to consider ending dental care for seniors. That will make the line at the free clinics longer next year.

They didn’t mention that cuts to early childhood programs will make it less likely that children who need dental care will be screened and identified and helped so they don’t show up at school distracted by pain. The stories about the school supplies focused on the businesses who were making the donations and how much the supplies were needed.

It didn’t make it in the stories, but there’s a line in the state budget for instructional supplies. This summer the General Assembly voted to reduce it by $84 million over the next two years, a cut of almost 50 percent. That’s on top of the cuts to supplies in the last two years. And teachers were already forced to spend several hundred dollars of their own money for supplies every year before the budget was slashed.

People sleeping in cars to see a dentist and communities begging for supplies that children need to learn. They have plenty in common. They are both part of the state we are becoming. Welcome to the new North Carolina.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director at N.C. Policy Watch