This is the first of a Back to School blog series (see Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5) that highlight various issues to be aware of as the 2016-17 school year kicks off.
It’s back to school time, and more than 1.5 million students are preparing to embark upon a new school year. Currently the 10th largest public school system in the nation, North Carolina has experienced steady growth in the number of students entering school doors in local communities across the state – enrolling more than 100,000 additional students over the past decade. This makes it more important than ever to increase investment in schools to ensure the growing number of students in North Carolina receive a high quality education.
The makeup of students in public schools has changed over time. Last school year, no single race or ethnic group represented a majority of North Carolina’s student enrollment—a reflection of the changing demographic trend in the state’s broader population. Furthermore, one of every two students in public schools qualified for free or reduced school meals, which indicates that a significant number of students reside in low- and moderate-income households and face persistent economic challenges.
One way to ensure that our schools have the resources to provide a quality education to all students, regardless of their socio-economic background, is through the state budget, which serves as an important source of education funding for our schools. For the upcoming school year, the state budget under which schools will operate is a mixed bag of incremental progress in some areas and persistent lagging support in other areas. For the 2016-17 school year, state funding per student remains 8.1 percent below 2008 pre-recession level, with more than 81,000 additional students enrolling in public schools during this time. Consequently, our schools are challenged with educating more and more students with fewer resources.
Lawmakers limited their ability to boost investment in public schools by passing costly tax cuts in recent years that largely benefit the wealthy and profitable corporations. The state’s ability to invest in public education will continue to be limited in the years ahead as the cost of the tax cuts grow larger. For the current fiscal year, these tax breaks reduce available revenue by $1.4 billion, dollars that otherwise would have been available to lawmakers to boost investments that promote student achievement. Once all tax changes are fully in place, this annual cost grows to more than $2 billion.
With limited available resources due to lop-sided tax cuts, lawmakers prioritized teacher pay raises in their budget for the upcoming school year—but these raises fall short because teacher pay continues to fall well behind those offered by other professions. The relatively modest additional dollars provided for certain areas of the public schools budget fall well short of meeting the standard of adequate funding. State funding per student for textbooks and digital resources remains more than 40 percent below pre-recession spending. For classroom material and instructional supplies, state funding per student remains more than 50 percent below pre-recession spending. Furthermore, far fewer teacher assistants are in classrooms compared to state-funded position prior to the recession. Accordingly, despite efforts to improve compensation, teachers will likely continue to leave the field due to poor classroom conditions.
Other investments that contribute to student achievement and success are simply missing from the state budget. Additional funding for school nurses to get the nurse-to-student ratio closer to the recommended national average is not included in the budget. Furthermore, dedicated funding for professional development for teachers and school leaders is absent from the budget Funding for teacher mentoring, which lawmakers eliminated in 2010, remains missing in the current budget. State funding for the NC Teaching Fellows, which lawmakers eliminated in recent years, was not restored. This program recruited and placed trained teachers in North Carolina classrooms.
The reality is that much more work remains to be done to ensure that our public schools have the resources needed to provide all students a quality education and that we are able to attract and retain quality teachers. This requires that we not short-change 1.5 million students by limiting our ability to investment in them as a result of to costly tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful.