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.

Commentary, Education

A modest proposal: Use the state surplus to help meet school construction needs

Image: Adobe Stock

In some ways, February seems like a lifetime ago. But in those early days of the 2019 legislative session, there was broad, bipartisan consensus that it was finally time for state leaders to do something about school districts’ $8 billion-plus of outstanding school capital needs. Senate leaders wanted to funnel more money into their pay-as-you-go plan known as the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund (SCIF) while House leaders coalesced around a $1.9 billion bond – $1.5 billion of which would support public schools.

A mere six months later, legislative leaders have failed in their attempts to provide any new support for school buildings. Both chambers have given up on trying to pass their standalone bills related to school construction, and are apparently unwilling to engage on a budget bill that could generate the necessary support from either the Governor or three-fifths of legislators.

However, fate has provided legislative leaders with a second bite at the apple in the form of nearly $900 million in one-time money from revenue coming in above projections. Currently, Speaker Moore and Senator Berger appear intent on sending $663 million of the surplus to North Carolinians in the form of $125 checks.

Berger and Moore should re-think that plan and consider using that money for a cause they both claim to care about: our state’s dilapidated public schools. After all, sending the $663 million to schools would actually go further for schools than either the Senate’s SCIF plan or the House’s bond proposal.

Both the SCIF and the bond would parse out school capital payments over about a ten-year  time horizon. Additionally, both plans would force future reductions in state expenditures that would partially off-set the benefits of the added school construction spending. Taking these factors into account, my colleague Patrick McHugh and I showed that the SCIF would provide schools with the equivalent of an immediate appropriation of $563 million while the bond would provide schools with the equivalent of $605 million.

Here’s an update to our analysis: $663 million is bigger than $563 million or $605 million. If legislative leaders still think school construction is a good use of state funds, they would be better off sending $663 million of the surplus to schools, helping them alleviate their massive capital needs. Sending these dollars to schools would help solve a real social problem, inject more money into our state’s economy, and the plan has a much better chance of becoming law than the Republicans’ rebate plan.

If legislative leaders reject this proposal, it’s important to find out what changed. Six months ago, both Senate and House leaders agreed that spending state revenue on school construction was more important than sending $125 checks to North Carolinians. Now they have an opportunity to show that their concern for the state of our schools was sincere and not simple pandering to make up for decades of neglect.

Commentary, Education

Vetoed budget would have done nothing for education

After releasing House and Senate budget proposals that would have done next-to-nothing for public schools, the General Assembly approved a conference proposal (vetoed by Gov. Cooper on Friday) that would have done even less. In an unprecedented move, education budget writers presented a compromise budget that somehow spends even less than either of the inadequate House or Senate plans.

The biggest problem with the conference budget isn’t so much with what it would have done…it’s what it didn’t do. Namely, it would have continued to deny schools the resources they need to ensure all students can succeed.

Overall, the conference budget would have left total school funding 2.9 percent below pre-Recession levels when adjusted for enrollment growth and inflation. This figure underestimates the actual budget pressures faced by North Carolina’s public schools, as schools’ largest cost drivers – salary and benefit costs – have increased faster than traditional measures of inflation.

It’s more informative, therefore, to look at how schools’ resource levels have changed. Of the 24 biggest allotments in FY 08-09, 20 of them remain below their pre-Recession levels (see tables here and here). Compared to FY 08-09, the state is providing schools with:

  • Nearly 800 fewer teachers
  • Nearly 500 fewer instructional support personnel (psychologists, nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians, etc.)
  • The dollar equivalent of 7,730 fewer teacher assistants
  • Cuts of more than 40 percent to textbooks, classroom supplies, and school technology

Some argue that pre-Recession levels are an arbitrarily high bar, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Read more

Commentary

The hidden budget provision to kill sex ed in North Carolina

Anyone who has spent much time around the General Assembly is familiar with Alan Hoyle, even if they might not know the name. Hoyle is a Lincolnton, NC street preacher. But around Raleigh, he’s most notable for circling the General Assembly in his red truck adorned with anti-gay messaging, Bible verses, and graphic images of aborted fetuses. He’s a religious extremist and bigot. Yet a special provision tucked away in the House budget would give Alan Hoyle the authority to dictate what our schools are teaching.

Section 7.22 of the House Budget proposal is titled “Modernize Selection of Instructional Materials,” but if this provision were to become law it would return us to the stone age.

Under current law, the state is responsible for identifying textbooks that align with North Carolina’s Standard Course of Study. The state then uses its substantial purchasing power to negotiate best-in-the-nation pricing, ensuring that no schools anywhere in the country receive books for a lower price than North Carolina. Local school boards have the authority to purchase books via the state contract, purchase other instructional materials, and hear complaints from parents, teachers, and members of the community.

The House is proposing to upend this system. The efficient, statewide program for reviewing, selecting, and purchasing textbooks would be replaced with 115 district-level efforts for reviewing, selecting, and purchasing. Of course, these are the same districts whose funding has been slashed nearly 40 percent over the past decade. Many districts lack the time and expertise to carry out such detailed evaluations. The House proposal would not provide any additional funding for taking on this new responsibility.

The unfunded local burden would be greater when it comes to sex ed, or “health and safety programs.” When selecting instructional materials for these classes, local boards would be forced to conduct public hearings. They would also be required to maintain a centrally-located physical repository of all instructional materials that have been adopted or – in the case of sex ed – are even up for consideration to be adopted. District personnel would have to allow any member of the public to visit the repository to review these materials in person upon their request.

Of course, unfunded mandates that dissolve responsibilities onto local governments are simply par for the course under this General Assembly.

The real issue is how this law would allow Alan Hoyle and other fringe zealots to effectively veto any instructional materials that fail to align with their unique world view. Read more

Commentary, Education

NCGA budget proposals are a slap in the face to educators

On May 1, thousands of educators and public education advocates flooded the streets of Raleigh to demand additional resources for North Carolina’s public schools. Organizers from the North Carolina Association of Educators outlined five policy priorities:

  1. Provide enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals to meet national standards.
  2. Provide $15 minimum wage for all school personnel, 5% raise for all public school personnel, and a 5% cost of living adjustment for retirees.
  3. Expand Medicaid to improve the health of our students and families.
  4. Reinstate state retiree health benefits eliminated by the General Assembly in 2017.
  5. Restore advanced degree compensation stripped by the General Assembly in 2013.

Now that the House and Senate budget proposals have been released, it’s clear that General Assembly leaders failed to listen.

As can be seen, the General Assembly proposals fail to reach consensus on any of the policy priorities of the May 1 participants:

  • School support staff: Both proposals make just incremental progress towards filling North Carolina’s shortfall of librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals.
  • Educator compensation: Neither proposal includes extending the $15 minimum wage for state employees to the lowest-paid public school employees. Nor does either proposal provide a 5 percent pay increase in year one for educators. And neither budget includes a permanent COLA for retirees.
  • Medicaid expansion: Neither the House nor the Senate proposals include Medicaid expansion, leaving 500,000 North Carolinians in the coverage gap, harming stability and coverage for countless families.
  • Restore retiree health benefits for new hires: Neither proposal restores retiree health benefits for new hires after January 1, 2021, which will hamper teacher recruitment after that time.
  • Restore master’s supplement for those who started programs after August 1, 2013: The House budget includes restoration of the master’s salary supplement, returning to the policy in place prior to the 2013 repeal. The Senate proposal would not restore the master’s salary supplement.

These budget proposals are a slap in the face those who came out on May 1, filling the streets of Raleigh to demand more adequate support for our schools. Clearly, legislative leaders weren’t happy with teachers’ decision to organize massive rallies in each of the past two years. But unless the General Assembly reverses course and starts listening to the state’s educators, teacher actions are likely to become more frequent and more disruptive in future years. Teachers are clearly fed up with not being provided the resources necessary to help their children succeed. This year’s budget proposals are only going to stoke that fire.