Commentary, Education

Senate education budget is a dereliction of duty

For years, North Carolina’s public schools were a signature point of pride for the state. But a decade of austerity, neglect, and misguided policy has left our system with several challenges that require immediate intervention:

Anyone who cares about children, justice, and the future of our state would be taking drastic action to reverse these trends. Unfortunately, concern for children, justice, and the future of our state is in short supply within the General Assembly.

Much like the House budget unveiled earlier this month, the newly-released Senate budget makes no serious effort to address the problems faced by North Carolina’s public schools. It fails to make any serious efforts to provide additional supports for students or schools with greater needs. Without a better budget, schools will remain unequipped to meet students’ basic needs, let alone tear down the barriers created by poverty and discrimination.

So what does the Senate budget propose to do?

  • It adds 115 school psychologist positions. This additional investment is certainly welcome, but at $8.7 million, hardly puts a dent in the $655 million needed to meet industry standards for instructional support staffing.
  • It increases classroom supplies funding by $15 million, which would still leave supplies funding 42 percent below pre-Recession levels. Moreover, the Senate would mandate that districts transfer almost half of their supplies funding for teachers to spend via the ClassWallet app. The app will limit districts’ abilities to make strategic, bulk purchases, and the ClassWallet app has been criticized by teachers for increasing the costs of buying supplies.
  • It gives teachers a paltry 1.7 percent raise that’s unlikely to keep up with inflation.
  • It gives janitors, teacher assistants, bus drivers, and child nutrition staff an even more insulting raise of just 1 percent after these employees were excluded from last year’s $15 minimum wage for state employees.
  • It places even more armed law enforcement officers in middle and elementary schools even though a recent study found that they fail to improve school safety in middle schools.
  • It spends $3 million so that students who qualify for reduced-price lunches would receive their lunches for free. Unfortunately, funding for this laudable initiative would be cut after the first year.
  • It eliminates school districts’ ability to sue their local county commissioners over lack of capital funding.

Here’s what the Senate budget doesn’t do:

  • Fix a biased school report card grading system that is scheduled to increase the number of “F” schools from 87 to 839.
  • Restore per-student funding to pre-Recession levels.
  • Account for the 782 fewer teachers than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system.
  • Account for the 626 fewer instructional support personnel than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system (even after accounting for the additional 115 school nurses provided under the Senate proposal).
  • Account for the 8,430 fewer teacher assistants than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system.

Meeting these pre-Recession funding levels is an incredibly low standard to hold legislators to. Prior to the Recession, North Carolina ranked 42nd in terms of school funding effort – the amount of school spending as a share of our economy (GDP). In 2009, Education Week gave North Carolina an “F” for level of school funding. Since then, things have only gotten worse, consigning an entire generation of North Carolina students to a full 12 years of school under austerity conditions.

If legislative leaders actually wanted to address schools’ needs, they could. Tax cuts since 2013 now drain $3.6 billion per year from state coffers, largely to the benefit of corporations and the wealthy. The Senate budget proposes a further windfall to corporations by reducing franchise taxes by $108 million in year FY 19-20, rising to $255 million in FY 20-21. And the budget writers leave another $1 billion unspent over the biennium. We could afford to do good things if legislative leaders wanted to do good things.

It’s a moral outrage that our school system offers a Black boy in Halifax County a starkly lower chance for success than a white boy who had the luck to be born in Chapel Hill. A budget like the Senate’s – that does nothing to upset this status quo – is unacceptable.

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