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.

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.