Commentary, Education

Senate education budget is a dereliction of duty

For years, North Carolina’s public schools were a signature point of pride for the state. But a decade of austerity, neglect, and misguided policy has left our system with several challenges that require immediate intervention:

Anyone who cares about children, justice, and the future of our state would be taking drastic action to reverse these trends. Unfortunately, concern for children, justice, and the future of our state is in short supply within the General Assembly.

Much like the House budget unveiled earlier this month, the newly-released Senate budget makes no serious effort to address the problems faced by North Carolina’s public schools. It fails to make any serious efforts to provide additional supports for students or schools with greater needs. Without a better budget, schools will remain unequipped to meet students’ basic needs, let alone tear down the barriers created by poverty and discrimination.

So what does the Senate budget propose to do?

  • It adds 115 school psychologist positions. This additional investment is certainly welcome, but at $8.7 million, hardly puts a dent in the $655 million needed to meet industry standards for instructional support staffing.
  • It increases classroom supplies funding by $15 million, which would still leave supplies funding 42 percent below pre-Recession levels. Moreover, the Senate would mandate that districts transfer almost half of their supplies funding for teachers to spend via the ClassWallet app. The app will limit districts’ abilities to make strategic, bulk purchases, and the ClassWallet app has been criticized by teachers for increasing the costs of buying supplies.
  • It gives teachers a paltry 1.7 percent raise that’s unlikely to keep up with inflation.
  • It gives janitors, teacher assistants, bus drivers, and child nutrition staff an even more insulting raise of just 1 percent after these employees were excluded from last year’s $15 minimum wage for state employees.
  • It places even more armed law enforcement officers in middle and elementary schools even though a recent study found that they fail to improve school safety in middle schools.
  • It spends $3 million so that students who qualify for reduced-price lunches would receive their lunches for free. Unfortunately, funding for this laudable initiative would be cut after the first year.
  • It eliminates school districts’ ability to sue their local county commissioners over lack of capital funding.

Here’s what the Senate budget doesn’t do:

  • Fix a biased school report card grading system that is scheduled to increase the number of “F” schools from 87 to 839.
  • Restore per-student funding to pre-Recession levels.
  • Account for the 782 fewer teachers than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system.
  • Account for the 626 fewer instructional support personnel than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system (even after accounting for the additional 115 school nurses provided under the Senate proposal).
  • Account for the 8,430 fewer teacher assistants than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system.

Meeting these pre-Recession funding levels is an incredibly low standard to hold legislators to. Prior to the Recession, North Carolina ranked 42nd in terms of school funding effort – the amount of school spending as a share of our economy (GDP). In 2009, Education Week gave North Carolina an “F” for level of school funding. Since then, things have only gotten worse, consigning an entire generation of North Carolina students to a full 12 years of school under austerity conditions.

If legislative leaders actually wanted to address schools’ needs, they could. Tax cuts since 2013 now drain $3.6 billion per year from state coffers, largely to the benefit of corporations and the wealthy. The Senate budget proposes a further windfall to corporations by reducing franchise taxes by $108 million in year FY 19-20, rising to $255 million in FY 20-21. And the budget writers leave another $1 billion unspent over the biennium. We could afford to do good things if legislative leaders wanted to do good things.

It’s a moral outrage that our school system offers a Black boy in Halifax County a starkly lower chance for success than a white boy who had the luck to be born in Chapel Hill. A budget like the Senate’s – that does nothing to upset this status quo – is unacceptable.

Commentary, Education

News & Observer “fact check” on senator’s school voucher claim tells only half the story

A recent News and Observer “fact check” weighed into the North Carolina Senate’s debate over a bill that would expand eligibility for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. The article rates Sen. Natasha Marcus’s claim that there’s no wait list for Opportunity Scholarship vouchers as “Half True” because she failed to tell “the full story.” Yet in going after Sen. Marcus’s statement, the N&O also fails to tell the whole story. By their own measure, the “fact check” itself is just “Half True.”

The bill that Sen. Marcus was debating, SB 609, would make two major changes to expand eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher.

First, the bill (which has passed the Senate and now awaits action in the House) would remove the cap on the number of new vouchers that could be provided to students in grades K-1. Currently, only 40 percent of new scholarships may be awarded to students in grades K-1.

Second, the bill would allow more middle-income families to be eligible for vouchers. Currently, families are eligible if their income is within 246.05 percent of the federal poverty level. If SB 609 becomes law, families with incomes within 277.5 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible. That would raise the eligibility from $63,359 to $71,457 for a family of four.

Senators are pushing these changes because in every year of its existence, funding for Opportunity Scholarship vouchers has exceeded awards of Opportunity Scholarships. Dollars have outstripped demand.

Given the program’s consistent over-funding, it’s totally reasonable that Marcus concluded, “Every student who’s eligible right now has received a voucher…So, there’s no wait list.” However, as the N&O points out, there were 520 income-eligible students in FY 18-19 who did not receive a voucher due to the cap on awards to students in grades K-1. These students are not placed on a wait list, so Marcus is correct – there is no wait list. And even if they were given full-value vouchers, the program would still be over-funded for FY 18-19. But the N&O decided to call her technically true statement “Half True” for “not telling the full story.”

Yet the N&O also fails to tell the whole story.

First, the N&O fails to mention why the cap on K-1 students is important. The cap was put into place because many of the vouchers awarded to students in those grades end up going to children who would have gone to private school anyway. Unlike students in grades 2-12, voucher applicants entering kindergarten or first grade are not required to have previously been enrolled in a public school. The creators of the Opportunity Scholarship voucher put the cap in place – originally set at 35 percent – to limit the amount of funding that the program would drain from public schools. After all, the state fails to save any money by giving someone a voucher to do something they were planning to do already.

The proof is in the numbers. Read more


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. Read more


House budget targets for education expose legislature’s backwards priorities

Ten years of austerity budgets have left North Carolina’s education system – public schools, community colleges, and university system – with incredible needs.

Compared to before the Recession, the state is providing public schools with fewer teachers, instructional support personnel (nurses, librarians, counselors, psychologists, etc.), teacher assistants, textbooks, and supplies.

The North Carolina Community College System is burdened with a $53 million “management flexibility” cut each year, and faces substantial workforce development needs. Several campuses are facing budgetary shortfalls due to Hurricane Florence.

In the UNC System, state funding per full-time student has been slashed about 20 percent.

Given the laundry list of needs facing North Carolina’s education system, how excited would you get about a budget that would increase real education funding by 0.3 percent? Because that’s how much House Budget writers have committed to addressing the state’s non-salary education needs for next year.

On Tuesday, budget writers from the House Appropriations Committee on Education revealed that they will have just $45.0 million to spend in FY 19-20 and $63.6 million in FY 20-21.

It is important to note that the above does not include salary increases, which will be added on top of the proposed spending targets. However, if you look at the laundry list of needs above, they all list non-salary shortfalls.

While our educators need competitive pay, they also need more resources. Children need books, supplies, teacher assistants, instructional support personnel (nurses, counselors, psychologists, librarians, and social workers), assistant principals, and teachers. Just restoring these areas to pre-Recession levels would cost $593 million. Doing something moderately ambitious like funding school support staff at industry-recommended levels requires an additional $600 million.

What the minuscule House budget targets make clear is that General Assembly leadership has no interest in creating a world-class education system in North Carolina. They have instead committed themselves to keeping taxes low for corporations and wealthy North Carolinians.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For example, a 5 percent corporate income tax rate[1] would generate $604 million – or more than enough to restore funding for textbooks, supplies, teacher assistants, instructional support personnel, assistant principals, and teachers.

A millionaire’s tax would generate an additional $362 million.

Reinstating the state-level estate tax would generate at least $70 million per year.

In other words, there are easy way to pay for the things our education system needs…if you actually want to pay for things that the education system needs.

But these minuscule House budget targets show that the General Assembly clearly has other priorities.

[1] For point of reference, the corporate income tax rate is now 2.5 percent, down from 6.9 percent in 2013


Trump education budget lays bare his party’s antipathy towards public schools

President Donald Trump issued his budget proposal earlier this month continuing the trend in divestment in universal public education. If enacted, Trump’s budget would slash federal education spending by 12 percent, eliminating funding for 29 education programs. A full list of the programs slated for elimination (as first reported by Education Week) can be found below:

Read more