Commentary, Education

Teacher protests helped, but North Carolina still has ways to go to restore school funding

On May 16, over 20,000 teachers descended upon Raleigh to encourage legislative leaders to increase funding for North Carolina’s public schools. The impressive labor action – which shut down 40 school districts across the state – came on the heels of teacher-led protests in other states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

According to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), these protests helped: in four of the five states with large-scale teacher protests, including North Carolina, legislators responded by increasing school funding. According to the report, per-student, inflation-adjusted state funding rose 3 percent in North Carolina.

While educators and other public school advocates deserve praise for pressuring legislators to increase school funding last year, North Carolina’s school budgets have a long way to go to make up for prior-year budget cuts.

Analysis of state budget documents shows that per-student state funding for public schools remains 5.4 percent below pre-Recession levels when adjusted for inflation. However, that number understates the actual budget pressures facing our schools. Recent-year funding increases have targeted teacher pay raises and covering rising retirement and health care costs. While such investments are important, they don’t ensure that North Carolina students have every tool they need for educational success.

North Carolina funds its schools via specific funding allotments. Dollar allotments provide districts a fixed pot of funds for certain activities. Position allotments provide districts with a given number of positions, with the state taking responsibility for paying the appropriate salary for the given position.

Of the 20 largest dollar allotments in FY 2008-09, 15 remain below their pre-Recession levels.

The General Assembly has massively slashed funding for supplies and materials (down 55 percent), textbooks (down 40 percent), central office staff (down 39 percent), and teacher assistants (down 35 percent). Funding for professional development and mentor programs for beginning teachers have been eliminated entirely.

The story is no better for the state’s position allotments. Of the four position allotments that existed in FY 2008-09, three remain below their pre-Recession levels.

Compared to before the Recession, the state is providing schools with fewer teachers, instructional support personnel (nurses, librarians, counselors, psychologists, etc.), and school building administrators (principals and assistant principals).

According to the CBPP report, North Carolina is among the minority of states that still finds its school funding below pre-Recession levels. And the report notes that North Carolina sits alongside Arizona and Oklahoma for using deep school funding cuts to pay for corporate and personal income tax cuts that have mostly benefited the wealthy. As a result, North Carolina faces a budget shortfall of $1.2 billion in 2020, increasing to $1.4 billion in 2022.

We’re already seeing the negative impact austerity budgets are having on North Carolina’s public schools. Other states are increasingly passing us by, and students of color and those from families with low incomes are increasingly paying the price. An alternative path – one which adequately funds our public schools – can improve educational outcomes for students and boost long-term growth. The report highlights that investments in public schools have tremendous long-term impacts, particularly for children from families with low incomes.

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