House education budget falls short of needs, misleads on pay increases

It’s a story that North Carolinians have heard all too often this past decade. Despite a steadily growing economy, the General Assembly – in this case, the House – has once again failed to meaningfully address budget shortfalls in our public schools. The only new wrinkle presented by this week’s passage of the 2019 House education budget is a bizarre new attempt to mislead the public on educator pay increases.

First, let’s talk about the headline numbers. House leaders have increased the budget for public schools by 3.8 percent in FY 19-20 and 8.2 percent in FY 20-21 above base levels. This compares to proposed annual increases of 5.9 percent and 8.7, respectively, in the Governor’s budget. The House budget levels would leave total per-student state funding 2 percent below pre-Recession levels on an inflation-adjusted basis.

Very little of the additional House funding will expand resources for our public schools. As has been common over the past five years, most of the additional new funding is directed towards salary and benefit increases for teachers, instructional support personnel, assistant principals, and principals. These pay increases should be thought of as simply covering the cost of inflation, or as recoupment for the four years this decade when salaries were frozen. To date, the past five years of salary increases haven’t translated to notably improved retention, nor have they reversed the trend of plummeting enrollments in our schools of education.

Similarly, the budget’s technical adjustments provide additional funding to account for inflation and changes in student enrollment (until 2014, such changes weren’t even considered as expansion funding).

That leaves just $42 million in FY 19-20 and $62 million in FY 20-21 that will actually be distributed to school districts via the State Public School Fund to expand services for students. That represents a 0.4% increase in school resources in FY 19-20, and a 0.6% increase in FY 20-21.

Of the 24 biggest allotments in FY 08-09, this House budget would leave 18 below their pre-Recession levels when adjusted for inflation and student growth.

The primary initiatives receiving increased funding under the House budget are related to school safety. The proposal expands grant programs for school mental health support personnel, school resource officers in elementary and middle schools, safety equipment, training, and crisis services.

While funding for additional mental health support personnel is vital, the additional funding under the House budget provides less than 5 percent of what it would take for North Carolina to meet national standard staffing levels for student support staff.

Additionally, the funding for school resource officers is likely not money well spent. A 2018 study looking at North Carolina data found that middle school resource officers do not improve school safety.

On the subject of teacher pay, House leaders have done their best to mislead the public. Initially, they claimed they were providing teachers with a 4.8 percent increase in FY 19-20. They subsequently backed that down to 4.6 percent. However, they failed to mention that – in an unprecedented move – their new teacher salary schedule would not go into effect until January 1, 2020. As a result, the actual average pay increase for teachers in FY 19-20 would be 3.0 percent, compared to 4.6 percent under the Governor’s plan.

House budget writers have played a similar trick in describing pay increases for principals and assistant principals. Their average pay increases under the House plan would be closer to 5.0 percent and 3.0 percent, respectively; well below the 10.0 percent and 4.6 percent increases touted by House leaders.

Noncertified employees such as bus drivers and janitorial staff would be left behind under the House proposal. They would only receive the higher of $250 or a 0.5 percent raise in FY 19-20.

On the plus side, the House budget would fully restore master’s pay, allowing master’s teachers who began their studies after August 1, 2013 to qualify for a 10 percent salary increment.

Finally, the House budget proposal includes several policy changes, many of which would be backwards steps for our public schools.

  • Section 7.16 – Ensure Sufficient Staffing for Public Schools: Prohibits teachers from using personal leave unless the availability of a substitute teacher has been confirmed for that day. This move is seen as an effort to outlaw future teacher protests like the May 1 education rally. But it would also make it prohibitively difficult for teachers to take personal leave on normal days due to persistent shortages in substitute teacher availability.
  • Section 7.22 – Modernize Selection of Instructional Materials: Places a substantial unfunded mandate on school districts, which would be required to establish new processes to evaluate, select, and adopt instructional materials. The provision would also allow any member of the public to challenge a district’s instructional materials, automatically triggering investigations and hearings. These changes will allow members of the religious right to tie up limited district resources on any topic deemed remotely controversial.
  • Sections 8A.7 and 8A.8 – Opportunity Scholarships: These provisions eliminate the last vestiges of accountability for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program – already the nation’s least accountable voucher program – by eliminating the collection of student test data in schools accepting more than 25 voucher students and eliminating a requirement for the state to evaluate the performance of voucher students. Furthermore, eligibility would be extended to certain students already enrolled in private schools, draining state funds by providing these students with up to $4,200 per year to do something they were already doing without a state subsidy.
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