Commentary

Voters deserve facts on public school funding

North Carolina voters face a number of decisions as they head to the polls this fall.  It is vital that such important decisions are made with good information.  The deluge of political advertising contains a lot of information, yet fails to accurately inform voters.  Nowhere is this more true than when considering education funding in North Carolina.

Most North Carolina campaign commercials have focused on the issue of teacher pay.  Over the past three budgets, General Assembly leadership has delivered moderate pay increases to North Carolina’s teachers.  Of course, recent-year pay increases only came after three years of relative inaction.  Upon taking control of the General Assembly in 2011, Republicans initially prioritized tax cuts slanted towards the wealthy over increasing teacher salaries.  From FY 11-12 through FY 13-14, the General Assembly provided teachers with raises of 0.0%, 1.2%, and 0.0%, even though the state economy had rebounded from the depths of the recession.  Since then, state leadership has provided teachers with average pay increases of 7.0%, 2.1%, and 4.7%.  Unfortunately, a number of campaign ads have tried to spin this middling record into something it isn’t.

  • Myth: Republicans have provided teachers with raises of 15%, or $10,000.
  • Fact: While certain teachers have received such raises, not all have. We are still awaiting actual data for FY 16-17, but the best estimates available indicate that average teacher pay is up from $46,700 in FY 10-11 to $49,751 in FY 15-16.  That’s an increase of $3,051, or about 6.5% since FY 10-11.

Campaign ads are also claiming that school budgets have significantly increased the last four years.  Nominal budgets for public schools have indeed increased since FY 10-11 at a rate of about 3% per year.  Of course, nominal increases fail to account for inflation or the number of students.  Once these two factors are taken into account, the real budget growth has been a paltry 0.6% per year since FY 10-11.  If this sluggish rate of investment continues, it will take another 17 years (FY 33-34) for school budgets to return to their pre-recession levels.

A closer look at the North Carolina public schools budget shows that schools have fewer resources today than they did in FY 10-11.  That is, North Carolina schools are making do with less than they had even at the depths of the recession.  Nominal budget increases since that time have been driven by growing student headcount, moderate pay raises for teachers, and the rising costs of the state’s health and retirement programs.  Actual resources per student have been decreasing.

As compared to FY 10-11, on a per-student basis:

  • The number of state-allotted teacher positions has fallen 2.6%
  • The number of state-allotted instructional support positions (nurses, counselors, librarians, etc.) is down 8.6%
  • The number of state-allotted principals and assistant principals is down 8.8%
  • State funding for teacher assistants has been cut by 38.5% (no, positions have not been “fully-funded”)
  • State funding for classroom supplies and materials has been cut by 38.4%
  • State funding for central office support has been cut by 25.5%
  • State funding for low wealth counties has been cut by 16.3%
  • State funding for students with limited English proficiency has been cut by 11.4%
  • State funding for transportation of students has been cut by 3.6%

The allotment for janitors, clerical workers, and substitute teachers has also been reduced (by 18.6%) if you take into account federal stimulus funding that allowed North Carolina to pay these workers from federal funds on a temporary basis in FY 2010-11.1

Of the other major allotments, funding remains essentially flat for children with disabilities and at-risk students.  And while funding for textbooks has increased since FY 10-11 (recession-era cuts to textbooks were intended to be temporary), it remains 40% below pre-recession levels.

The only major new initiative over this time has been an effort to improve third grade reading achievement.  The Read to Achieve program provides funding for diagnostic tests, but, until the summer of 2016 when summer reading camps were opened to struggling first and second graders, has failed to target additional resources towards increasing achievement. Instead of providing resources, Read to Achieve aimed to increase third grade reading achievement by retaining students who fail the state’s reading test.  This threat-based policy has appeared to have failed, as third grade reading achievement has fallen in each of the past three years.

Looking forward to the 2017 legislative session, it is unlikely that current state leadership will change course and begin providing schools with additional resources.  Recently, the Governor’s office has taken the unprecedented step of requiring the State Board of Education’s budget request to be revenue neutral.  Such an unusual request contradicts the administration’s public optimism on the state’s fiscal health.  While state leaders publicly brag about increasing state revenues and a commitment to public education, their budget directions reveal greater pessimism.  Barring significant changes in direction, attitude, and policy actions, it appears North Carolina’s school resources will remain unacceptably low for the foreseeable future.

1. All changes based on FY 16-17 enacted budget, which does not include distributions to allotments from reserves for salaries and benefits. Percentage changes will be reduced slightly upon certification of budget, but will not change the underlying story of reduced resource levels for these allotments.

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