Commentary, Education

Governor’s budget shows schools’ desperate need for more revenue

On May 16, more than 20,000 educators and public school advocates marched on Raleigh to demand better funding for North Carolina’s public schools.

Speaking at the event, Governor Cooper captured the protesters’ sentiments, saying “This is far more than just about teacher pay…it’s about real investment in our schools.”

The Governor specified which investments he found most important:

“We have to invest in textbooks. We have to invest in digital learning. We have to improve the physical condition of our schools. We have to hire more nurses. We have to hire more counselors. We have to hire more teacher assistants.  We have to hire more school resource officers. We have to expand the Teaching Fellows program. And we need to give you help for school supplies because we know you are reaching into your own pockets and paying for them, and that’s not right.”

He proposed paying for these investments last year by delaying then-planned tax cuts for corporations and North Carolinians earning more than $200,000 per year.

Ultimately, the General Assembly chose a different route, moving forward with tax cuts in 2019 that are now draining more than $900 million per year from state coffers. When added to prior rounds of tax cuts since 2013, North Carolina’s coffers are now missing $3.6 billion a year. These tax cuts are making it impossible for state leaders’ to make the school investments called on by Cooper and the May 16th marchers.

One needs to look no further than Governor Cooper’s 2019 budget proposal to see how North Carolina’s dedication to low taxes for corporations and wealthy North Carolinians prevents investment of the likes called upon at the May 16th protest. It hardly makes a dent in giving teachers the tools they need to be successful. Cooper’s proposed investments in textbooks, supplies, and support staff – while admirable – would still leave funding well below where it needs to be.

Apart from teacher pay, Cooper’s largest education proposal is to fund an additional 500 “instructional support” positions – nurses, counselors, psychologists, librarians, and social workers. Even with this additional investment, state funding for such positions would remain 3 percent below pre-Recession levels. The $40 million increase represents just 6 percent of the $655 million needed for the state to meet industry-recommended staffing standards for these vital positions.

The Governor also proposes a temporary, one-year increase in funding for classroom supplies of $15 million. That injection of funds would still leave funding for supplies 41 percent below pre-Recession levels. The Governor’s proposed $10 million nonrecurring increase for textbooks would still leave that allotment’s funding 31 percent below pre-Recession levels. The Governor recommends the resurrection of state funding for teacher professional development (the General Assembly eliminated this allotment in 2013), but the $5.3 million proposal would leave funding 65 percent below pre-Recession levels. The Governor’s budget proposes no additional funding for the teacher assistants allotment, which has been cut 35 percent since the Recession.

Governor Cooper’s budget would do little to change the reality that 18 of the state’s 25 largest allotments remain below their pre-Recession levels. Even if the Governor’s budget proposal were accepted, schools would be making do with fewer teachers, assistant principals, instructional support personnel, teacher assistants, and supplies than they were provided a decade ago.

It is important to note that there’s nothing ambitious about returning school funding to pre-Recession levels. That year, North Carolina ranked just 42nd in terms of school funding effort – the amount of state and local school funding as a share of the state’s economy. Subsequent budget cuts have dropped the state’s effort ranking to 48th as of FY 2015-16, the most recent year for which data is available.

The Governor’s budget proposal makes clear that real investment in our schools won’t be possible under our depleted revenue situation. The $3.6 billion drained from state coffers only leaves room for small, targeted spending increases that fall well short of actual needs. Without new sources of revenue, educators will continue to be deprived of the tools necessary to help every child prosper.

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