Governor’s education budget shows that we can give students the education they’re owed

Gov. Roy Cooper

The biggest public school issue facing North Carolina’s state education policymakers this session is whether or not the state will make progress on providing children with the education they are owed under our state constitution. The Governor’s budget proposal marks an important first step towards securing such progress this year.

Under the decades-long Leandro court case, North Carolina’s courts have consistently found that state leaders have been failing to provide students with the type of education they are owed under our state constitution. According to the 2019 WestEd report, North Carolina was once making progress towards meeting its constitutional obligations to children. However, the past 10 years of austerity budgets and misguided legislation have moved our state backwards.

On March 15, the state submitted a detailed action plan to deliver a constitutionally sound education system by the 2028 school year. The plan sets forth specific investments and policy changes that, in the words of the Every Child NC coalition, are strong, equitable, and affordable.

Importantly, the Governor’s budget proposal incorporates all of the elements of the Leandro action plan, including:

  • Pay raises for teachers and principals that will boost average salaries by 10 percent by the 2023 school year;
  • Substantial investments in early childhood programs to expand NC Pre-K, Smart Start, early intervention services, and salary supplements for early childhood educators;
  • Expanded funding for children with disabilities, English learners, disadvantaged students and other funding streams that will greatly improve the equity of North Carolina’s school finance system;
  • Funding to begin staffing school nurses, psychologists, counselors, librarians, and social workers at recommended staffing ratios, and to restore funding for teacher assistants; and
  • Investments to improve the recruitment, retention, and diversity of teachers and school leaders.

If implemented, the proposal would put the state on a reasonable path to achieve its Leandro goals by the 2028 school year.

That said, the Governor’s plan for this biennium could have been more ambitious. The aforementioned WestEd report recommended the state invest more aggressively in the first years of an eight-year plan, while the Governor’s plan would see more aggressive funding increases pushed out to later years. As my colleague Alexandra Sirota points out, the Governor’s budget “misses a critical moment for getting NC on a sustainable path to more equitable outcomes” by “passing on popular options to raise the tax rates paid by high-income taxpayers and profitable corporations.” Additional revenue would have made it easier for the state to meet its goal of providing a sound basic education to all students by the 2028 school year.

Still, the Governor’s proposal would mark the fist substantial increase in public school resources in more than a decade. If enacted, it would begin to reverse North Carolina’s back-sliding and serve an important down-payment on the state’s continuing efforts to provide all students with the education they are owed.

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