Senate budget would take education funding to destructive new depths
The North Carolina Legislative Building – Photo: Clayton Henkel.
“Fund students, not systems” has become the rallying cry of the country’s most extreme school choice zealots. It’s a silly motto for many reasons. Notably, private schools and public schools are both “systems,” and systems are necessary to efficiently provide students with high quality education serving the public good. Despite the motto’s obvious ridiculousness, it seems to be catching on among right-wingers.
Unfortunately, North Carolina Senate budget writers only heard the motto’s second half: “not systems.” This Senate budget proposal reflects an apparent desire to defund our inclusive public school system.
The Senate budget proposal would provide schools a year-over-year decrease in funding, worsen an already record teacher shortage, and expand extreme voucher schemes…steps that, if enacted, would put our inclusive public school system in serious peril.
The Senate budget would kneecap our already-underfunded schools with a 2 percent cut in year-over-year funding at a time when the state has billions in overfunded state reserves and – in this Senate proposal – would leave another $2.1 billion unspent.
The stingy proposal would leave per-pupil state support (operating and capital) 2.5 percent below pre-Recession levels, when adjusted for inflation. In contrast, the Governor’s budget proposal would result in per-pupil total state support 12 percent above pre-Great Recession levels.
A budget like this simply fails to take the steps necessary to provide students with a public education system that meets even the bare minimum of what’s required by our state constitution. This budget funds less than 7 percent of what’s needed for year four (FY 24) of the Leandro Plan. It hits just 4 percent of the Plan’s year five spending target (FY 25).
It would undoubtedly cement our status as the state with the country’s worst school funding effort.
The plan doles out a paltry raise of just 3.8 percent over the biennium. If inflation tracks CBO projections of 6.5 percent inflation over the biennium, then this Senate budget would give teachers a 2.5 percent pay cut in real terms.
The plan keeps pay essentially flat for teachers with more than 14 years of experience. The flattening of the teacher pay schedule is a deliberate attempt to drive experienced, more effective educators from the classroom.
Budget writers have claimed that their priority is increasing beginning pay to attract new teachers. But the proposed starting salary of $39,000 for next year would still be nearly 12 percent below the 15-16 starting salary, when adjusted for inflation.
The net result will undoubtedly be a worsening of our historic teacher shortage — one that has already left more than one of every 20 teaching positions vacant.
Rather than supporting the inclusive public school system serving 1.5 million North Carolinians, lawmakers have instead chosen to shower financial support on the private school system serving just 100,000 students. The Senate budget would triple funding for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program by opening the program to millionaires who have already enrolled their children in private schools. The changes amount to a massive giveaway of taxpayer money to the wealthiest North Carolinians that starves our public school system of needed revenue. The expansion places further strain on public school budgets (particularly in rural counties where enrollment is already falling) while exacerbating racial and socioeconomic segregation.
As the Public School Forum’s Mary-Ann Wolf has noted, the proposal dedicates more new money over the biennium to vouchers than it does towards improving teacher pay. This reflects the backwards priorities of budget writers. Apparently, funneling public money into the pockets of disproportionately wealthy private school families is more important than providing decent pay to public school teachers.
The voucher scheme isn’t the only regressive wealth transfer in this budget. The Senate has also proposed further cuts to the income tax rate. According to the NC Budget and Tax Center, bringing “the personal income tax rate to 2.49 percent in 2029 reduces public funds by $7.7 billion, roughly equivalent to the entire state appropriation to Health and Human Services.”
With a budget that worsens the inadequate funding of our schools, cuts teacher pay, and redirects education funds to rich families via an expanded voucher program, Senate budget writers have fully embraced the destructive “not systems” way of thinking.
Despite having ample revenue, they’ve ignored the part about funding the 1.5 million students in our inclusive public school system. Ultimately, it’s those children who will pay the cost of the Senate’s misguided values, toiling in underfunded schools in order to finance voucher schemes and tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.
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