June Atkinson, our state Superintendent of Education made her pitch for an expanded budget to the Joint Education Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. Maxing out the 5% cap on the expansion budget was a given – the wish list came to just over $385 million. What wasn't a given were the spending priorities nominated by Atkinson. Students appeared to fall down that list in favor of boosting teacher pay and mentors, and technology spending.
In an era of teacher shortages – North Carolina falls short by thousands per year and therefore has to recruit nationwide – Atkinson stated that the number one priority was $38 million so that every 15 new teachers could have one dedicated mentor. "Where are these people coming from?" was the predictable and pertinent question asked of Atkinson. From the ranks of retired teachers, contractors and from present teachers given relief time for the job, Atkinson replied. Good luck with that, I thought.
Next on the list was over $70 million to improve internet connectivity and to update technology in classrooms. All fine and dandy, but is that more important than more money for educating special needs children, the fourth priority? That request – $40 million for children with disabilities (less than a third of what extra is required, by the way), $86 million for the Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Fund, and almost $13 million to boost an Academic and Intellectually Gifted program that state auditors have found to be deficient in terms of accountability – was also deemed to be less important than an extra $8 million of administrative support for school districts.
Last on the top 5 was more money to boost healthy lunch choices, our education leaders saying enough already with the bad pizza for our increasingly obese children.
When asked by Chairman Rick Glazier what was more important, a teacher and administrative staff pay raise or money for mentors, Atkinson stood by her troops. The pay raise came first, of course.
It's a critical question because this year it looks like there may not be much money to spread around. With many competing priorities – critical care in mental health, community college needs, parolee administration, and yes, that pesky demand for more money for transportation are just some – only those needs at the very top of the list look set to be satisfied. It is a pity then that more money specifically aimed at students with the biggest needs and hurdles – students from low income families and those with disabilities – are not at the top of the DPI and State Board wish list. What of the constitutional right to equal access to a sound and basic education?