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

Commentary

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

Commentary

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

Commentary

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

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. Read more