Commentary, Education

Legislature’s budgets (mini or otherwise) fail to approach school needs

The General Assembly’s inability to craft a budget generating the requisite support of the Governor or three-fifths of legislators has spurred a new approach: the “mini-budget.” The General Assembly’s latest plan is to forego a comprehensive budget bill and instead pass a series of piecemeal bills to address some of the state’s most politically sensitive needs, such as pay increases and other technical adjustments.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this strategy – while better than nothing – will once again fail to reverse a decade of neglect in providing our schools the resources necessary to succeed.

North Carolina has never done a good job of adequately funding our schools. In FY 08-09, North Carolina ranked just 43rd in per pupil spending and 43rd in terms of school funding effort (share of state and local school spending as a share of state GDP). That year, North Carolina spent less per student than our neighbors in Virginia and South Carolina, and only slightly outspent schools in Tennessee. It’s no surprise that Education Week gave North Carolina an “F” for our school funding level.

As things currently stand, real per-student state appropriations are 6.7 percent below pre-Recession levels.

This measure, however, underestimates the true resource crunch faced by our public schools. Actual cost increases for enrollment, salary schedule adjustments, and benefits have left resources at least 7.1 percent below pre-Recession levels.

Even this measure undersells district budget pressures, failing to take into account other types of inflation and the additional pressures created by unfettered school choice.

As things stand, 20 of the state’s 26 largest allotments remain below their pre-Recession levels once adjusted for enrollment and inflation, and North Carolina’s school funding effort has dropped to 48th worst in the country. North Carolina’s ranking on the NAEP has fallen relative to other states, with the state’s Black and Latinx students and those from families with low incomes increasingly being denied opportunities to succeed.

No mini budget can fix these maximalist holes. Yet mini budget proposals are all we’ve seen this session.

When it comes to the budget proposals put forward by the Governor and the General Assembly, the major differences are:

  • Teacher pay: The Governor proposed raising teacher salaries by an average of 9.1 percent over the biennium, compared to just 3.9 percent under the General Assembly plan
  • School construction: The Governor offered a $3.9 billion bond, $2 billion of which would go to public schools. The General Assembly’s pay-as-you-go plan would have provided select districts with $454 million in school construction funds over the biennium, along with a “promise” to provide more capital funds in subsequent years.

What the proposals have in common is that they do little to give schools the operating resources necessary to meet the needs of their students. The General Assembly’s budget would have increased funding by $271 million, but only $38 million of that amount would help restore school resources to pre-Recession levels. Out of the $568 million of new money proposed under the Governor’s budget, just $67 million goes towards restoring school resources. While the Governor’s proposal is clearly superior to the General Assembly’s effort, both fall well short of meeting schools’ needs. Restoring allotments to pre-Recession levels would cost $804 million.

In other words, even under the Governor’s plan – which is nearly twice as generous as the General Assembly’s – it would take 12 years to restore district resources close to pre-Recession levels.

Of course, under the General Assembly’s new mini budget plan, resources will never be restored to pre-Recession levels. North Carolina students would never benefit from the same number of teachers, instructional support personnel, assistant principals, teacher assistants, books, or supplies that they got before the Recession when our school funding ranked a lowly 43rd in the country.

All of these budgets – mini or not – reflect a failure to accept the scope to which legislators from both parties have neglected our public schools. In particular, these policymakers have been content with a system that – as the amazing CREED report E(race)ing Inequities documents – has consistently denied opportunity to Black and Latinx students. It’s why the Education & Law Project published the report Effective and Equitable, which provides policymakers with 28 community-informed recommendations that would transform education in North Carolina.

Enacting a transformation that provides opportunity for all students won’t come cheap, but it’s eminently affordable. The 28 recommendations put forth in Effective and Equitable would require about $3.8 billion of new investment. Coincidentally, increasing North Carolina’s school funding effort from 48th to 25th in FY 15-16 (the most recent year for which data is available) would have required additional investment of $3.6 billion. That’s $3.8 billion in today’s dollars. Similarly, returning to North Carolina’s pre-2013 tax code would restore approximately $3.6 billion to state coffers each year.

But to get where we need to go, policymakers need to abandon this pathetic mini-budget strategy and honestly ask themselves what it takes to provide every child with the opportunities they deserve. Then, get down to the hard work of crafting a comprehensive budget that actually addresses our children’s needs.

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