New education budget fails to address students’ basic needs

By: - November 17, 2021 9:03 am

When the General Assembly convened back in January, their assignment was to enact an education budget that put the state on the path towards providing students with “sound basic” schools by 2028. The state’s long-running Leandro court case even provided legislators with a step-by-step guide to the investments and policy changes necessary to complete the assignment.

With this week’s unveiling of the conference budget proposal – four and half months past its due date – we know the assignment was not only late, but woefully incomplete.

The key takeaway from this budget is that it fails to fund the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. In June, Superior Court judge W. David Lee ordered the state to implement the plan in full. After several months of foot-dragging and secret negotiations, the General Assembly’s budget falls far short. The budget funds just 53 percent of the Plan in FY 21-22, falling to 43 percent in FY 22-23 (full detail can be found here).

To the extent that this budget proposal funds items from the Leandro Plan, they are almost entirely concentrated in educator pay raises that barely keep pace with inflation. At a time when the core consumer price index has risen 4.6 percent over the prior year, the budget will provide teachers with an average raise of just 2.5 percent in each year of the biennium.

Additionally, the budget keeps intact a problematic teacher salary schedule that fails to provide step increases for most teachers with more than 15 years of experience.

Rather than working to provide students with the education they are constitutionally owed, this budget continues the misguided notion that school choice is a substitute for adequate resources.

The budget bill includes a provision to fast-track the approval of certain charter schools. It is important to remember that in North Carolina, charter schools exacerbate segregation, increase district budget pressures, and underperform relative to traditional public schools.

The budget also dramatically expands the state’s three voucher programs. In order to entice participation in the Opportunity Scholarship voucher, a program that has consistently been overfunded, the budget:

  1. Increases the value of the voucher from $4,200 to 90% of per-student spending in public schools (approximately $5,928 given current spending levels)
  2. Lifts the income eligibility from 278% of the federal poverty level ($72,705 for a family of four) to 324% of poverty ($85,794 for a family of 4)
  3. Expands opportunities for students to receive vouchers even when they’re already enrolled in a private school.

In anticipation of a surge in demand, the budget increases FY 22-23 funding by nearly a third, then guarantees annual increases of $15 million per year through FY 32-33 until program funding reaches $255.5 million.

The Disabilities Grant and Education Savings Account voucher programs are combined into a new program for students with disabilities called the Personal Education Accounts for Children with Disabilities Program. Under this new “voucher on steroids” families will be given debit cards loaded with up to $17,000 of state funds – a system that has been riven with fraud in other states. Like the Opportunity Scholarship voucher, this program will be granted automatic funding increases of $1 million per year through the 32-33 fiscal year, until total funding reaches $41.6 million.

There is little to praise. There is language holding district budgets harmless from mid-year budget cuts resulting from actual enrollment falling short of DPI’s projections. There is a small pilot program that will make feminine hygiene products freely available to students in participating schools. And teachers will no longer be forced to pay a $50 fee to cover substitute teacher costs when taking a personal day out of the classroom.

But when just looking at the public schools section, it is hard to see what would lead anyone to support this budget. It is late, incomplete, and represents a continuation of the misguided priorities that – in the words of the nonpartisan experts at WestEd – moved our state backwards over the past decade.

Unfortunately, the budget’s tax cuts mean it will be increasingly difficult to ever reverse course. The Leandro Plan shows we need to invest at least $5.6 billion more per year across our early education system and public schools just to meet students’ basic constitutional rights. However, the tax cuts included in this budget will reduce state revenues by $8 billion per year by 2030. This budget presents future policymakers with a difficult decision: continue to violate student’s basic constitutional rights to a sound basic education, raise taxes, or dramatically cut other vital state services.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.