Commentary

Legislature creates school funding task force, but appears unwilling and unable to seriously examine NC’s school funding needs

This week, the General Assembly announced which legislators will serve on the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. The Task Force, created via the 2017 budget bill, is charged with developing recommendations to radically overhaul North Carolina’s school finance system. A serious review of North Carolina’s school finance system could substantially benefit the state. School funding matters, particularly for students in low-income families. Unfortunately, early indications suggest that the Task Force is uninterested in reforms that would actually improve educational delivery in the state.

School finance can seem quite complicated. Revenue for public schools is collected from a variety of sources. In North Carolina, approximately 63 percent of funding comes from the state, 26 percent from local funds, and 11 percent from the federal government. These funds are then distributed to 115 school districts and 173 charter schools using a number of formulas; some of which can be quite simple, others quite complicated. To make things more complicated, each state has a unique method for collecting school revenues and distributing those funds to school districts. It’s all too easy to get lost in the weeds.

Yet school finance is quite simple when we take a step back from the details. Ultimately, we want to know two things:

  1. Are we providing enough money to allow every school district to develop students who are ready to successfully enter college or a career?
  2. Is school funding being distributed in accordance with student need, ensuring that a child has the same opportunities for success regardless of zip code or family circumstances?

In school-finance terms, the first question asks whether our school funding is “adequate.” The second question is asking whether school funding is “equitable.”

Unfortunately, the Task Force isn’t required to examine either of these issues. Despite the efforts of the education community, General Assembly budget writers refused to add language requiring the Task Force to examine the adequacy or equity of North Carolina’s school finance system. This is the equivalent of someone confronting their weight problem, but refusing to consider their diet or exercise. Read more

Commentary

U.S. teacher pay gap (possibly) worst in developed world

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), teacher pay in the United States ranks last among the 18 OECD member nations with available data in terms of competitiveness with other professions. In the United States, primary grade (elementary) teachers’ salaries are just 57 percent of the salaries of similarly-educated workers in other professions. Similarly, the report finds that upper secondary (high school) teachers’ salaries are just 59 percent of what they might earn on average if they had pursued another career.

This salary competitiveness gap has huge implications at every level of the US education system. Teachers are the most important classroom factor when it comes to improving student performance. The impact is especially pronounced for low-income and minority students. It’s therefore vital that schools attract and retain the most talented candidates possible into the teaching profession. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of potentially wonderful teaching candidates refuse to even consider teaching as a viable profession due to pay concerns.

Countries with high-performing education systems understand the importance of attracting and retaining high-quality teaching candidates into the profession. Every other country studied pays more competitive teacher salaries than the United States. For example, teachers in the United Kingdom earn salaries approximately 80 percent of their peers in other professions. In the much-lauded Finnish school system, upper secondary teacher salaries are essentially on par with the salaries offered by other professionals.

Of course, North Carolina teacher salaries are especially non-competitive. The Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of teacher salaries from 2011 to 2015 found North Carolina had the second-least competitive teacher salaries in the country. My own analysis of US Census data from 2010 to 2014 found that North Carolina teachers earned about 57 percent of other similarly-educated professionals in the state. North Carolina’s teachers would require pay raises between 25 to 43 percent to start earning just 80 percent of their similarly-educated North Carolina peers in other professions.

Thankfully, the state has made some progress on teacher pay. The most recently-passed budget should increase average teacher pay in the state by about 6.6 percent over the upcoming biennium, and enrollment in UNC system education programs has increased for the first time since at least 2010. These are positive signs, but the OECD report is a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done to develop a world-class teaching profession in North Carolina.

Commentary

Governor’s poor salesmanship allows General Assembly to confuse the teacher pay debate

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper

Imagine getting two job offers. The first job offer would provide a raise of ten percent while the second would provide a raise of 9.6 percent. Obviously, a full ten percent raise is better, but it’s probably fair to describe both offers as “effectively the same.”

According to the North Carolina Republican party, North Carolina’s teachers are facing the above scenario. Press releases from the Republican Senate and House Caucuses claim that the just-passed General Assembly budget will provide teachers with an average raise of 9.6 percent by the 2018-19 school year, which they describe as “effectively the same” as the Governor’s proposal. After all, the Governor has described his salary plan as providing a 10 percent raise over the biennium.

The competing teacher salary plans certainly sound like they are comparable. A closer analysis, however, shows that they are significantly different. The problem is, that when the General Assembly describes their plan as a 9.6 percent raise, and the Governor describes his plan as a 10 percent raise, they are talking about completely different things.

There are two ways to describe the impact of a teacher salary plan. Read more

Commentary

Final budget plan ignores past promises and irresponsibly underfunds teacher salary plan

North Carolina’s General Assembly leadership likes to tout its record of “fiscal responsibility.” A closer look at the 2017 budget’s teacher pay plan, however, shows that the salary plans are dangerously underfunded. Under-funding a $5.3 billion line-item is the opposite of fiscal responsibility.

The General Assembly has budgeted $101.7 million to implement its 2017-18 salary schedule. It is unclear how this number was derived. Had the General Assembly used the same methodology as used in the previous three budgets, it should have budgeted at least $115.4 million to implement the first-year teacher salary schedule. The problem is repeated in the budget’s second year. The General Assembly budgets just $372.6 million to implement its 2018-19 salary schedule, but the cost is likely to be closer to $387.0 million.

If anything, lawmakers should consider being more conservative in how they estimate teacher pay plans. Preliminary data from the December pay period indicates that the General Assembly under-budgeted teacher salaries by about $8 million in FY 16-17. If that holds true, this would mark the first time the General Assembly has underfunded the teacher allotment in over twenty years.

It is unclear whether the General Assembly is also under-funding its pay plan for principals and assistant principals. Neither the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division, nor the Department of Public Instruction, have released the data necessary to assess the fiscal soundness of these plans.

If the General Assembly’s fiscal irresponsibility creates a hole in the budget, the Governor’s budget office will have to implement mid-year budget cuts in other areas to ensure that teachers continue to receive their promised salaries. Should that come to pass, let’s be clear that the blame will lay with the General Assembly’s reckless budgeting practices, and not with the Governor acting to fix the General Assembly’s self-inflicted mess.

It’s important to remember that the General Assembly’s teacher pay plan represents a broken promise to North Carolina’s teachers. In the spring of 2016, Senator Phil Berger unveiled a plan to bring average teacher pay to $54,224 in the 17-18 school year. This budget fails to meet Senator Berger’s promise. Under the 2017 budget plan, average teacher pay will likely fall a little under $50,900 in the 17-18 school year. Read more

Commentary

House and Senate’s draconian central office cuts would disproportionately harm poor, rural school districts

Among the elements necessary for a well-functioning school district, central office staff are often overlooked. However, a functioning central office is vital. These professionals ensure that money is spent in accordance with the law, provide technical assistance to low-performing schools, comply with the numerous data and reporting requirements imposed by state lawmakers, implement state programs, recruit and hire school staff, develop school assignment and busing plans, and otherwise manage a school district’s complicated logistics.

Both the House and Senate budget proposals include draconian cuts to funding for school districts’ central office operations. The proposed cuts in the 2017 budget come on the heels of a number of post-Recession budget cuts. These cuts fall disproportionately on poor, rural districts that lack the local funding base necessary to replace the revenue eliminated by state cuts. And of course, the cuts ignore the simple truth that if we want our school districts to succeed, they need competent administrators.

The central office allotment was created in 1995 when S.L. 1995-450 consolidated nine allotments for various, specific positions into one allotment for “central office administration.” Following consolidation, the central office allotment was funded at approximately $84 million. The original allotment formula provided a base level of funding to each school district because, many central office costs are fixed costs. That is, every district needs a superintendent, a finance officer, curriculum supervisors, and human resource professionals. The formula then provided additional funding based on the number of students in a district, with smaller districts receiving a larger per-student appropriation.

Since its establishment, the central office allotment has been a frequent target of budget cuts. The allotment has been reduced in each of the 2001-02, 2002-03, 2003-04, 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2014-15, and 2016-17 fiscal years. Due to insufficient funding, the original allotment formula has been abandoned.

The General Assembly is proposing slashing funding even deeper in the upcoming biennium. The House proposes cutting the FY 2017-18 allotment by $5 million, and the FY 2018-19 allotment by $10 million. The Senate goes $5 million deeper each year, proposing a $10 million cut in FY 2017-18 and a $15 million cut in FY 2018-19. Read more