Education policy can get awfully complicated. However, state lawmakers will do a pretty good job if they consider just two guiding questions:
- Do our schools meet the bare minimum standards of what’s required under our state constitution?
- Are we doing a good job of recruiting and retaining great educators?
The answer to the first question gives us a decent indication as to whether students have access to the basic resources necessary to succeed academically. As the long-running Leandro court case has shown, North Carolina is far from meeting this goal.
The second question is important because education remains a labor-intensive practice. Success in schools is based largely based on the skills of highly-trained professionals and their ability to foster supportive relationships with students. Timely data on this question is difficult to come by, but the number of teacher vacancies more than doubled between the 19-20 and 20-21 school years, and anecdotally, teachers report that morale is distressingly low.
The recently-revealed state budget proposal fails to make progress on either of these fronts (see below). It should be rejected until legislative leaders present a proposal that actually moves our state forward.
A budget that fails to provide students what they are constitutionally owed
As part of the Leandro court case, the parties have created a detailed, research-based, community-informed plan to deliver constitutionally-compliant schools by 2028. The Plan has been endorsed by both Democratic and Republican judges. The plaintiffs and defendants both agree – and the judges have ordered – that the Plan must be implemented expediently and in full, just to meet the bare minimum of what students are owed.
Legislative leaders oppose the Plan, arguing that their legislative authority allows them to ignore the parts of the State Constitution they find inconvenient.
The court-mandated Plan requires the state to make nearly $1 billion of new investments in FY 22-23, relative to the 20-21 school year. Unfortunately, legislators continue to view compliance as optional. This budget proposal would leave nearly half of these items (44%) unfunded.
A full accounting of Leandro shortfalls can be found here.
A budget that cuts educator pay
The legislature describes their teacher pay plan as providing an average pay raise of 4.2%. My calculations (available upon request) put that figure at 4.0%.
Regardless, it is important to remember that those are nominal figures comparing last year’s salary schedule to this year’s schedule. In a year when year-over-year inflation has increased by 8.6%, that matters. A lot.
If one were to take inflation into account (by increasing last year’s salaries by 8.6%), then that 4.0% pay raise turns into a 3.9% pay cut.
The extent to which this budget fails on teacher pay is further emphasized by looking at beginning teacher pay. At the press conference unveiling the budget, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore described moving the starting teacher salary to $37,000 as a point of pride. However, when one takes inflation into account, starting salaries for North Carolina’s teachers will have fallen 14% since FY 15-16.