Vetoed budget would have done nothing for education

By: - July 1, 2019 10:08 am

After releasing House and Senate budget proposals that would have done next-to-nothing for public schools, the General Assembly approved a conference proposal (vetoed by Gov. Cooper on Friday) that would have done even less. In an unprecedented move, education budget writers presented a compromise budget that somehow spends even less than either of the inadequate House or Senate plans.

The biggest problem with the conference budget isn’t so much with what it would have done…it’s what it didn’t do. Namely, it would have continued to deny schools the resources they need to ensure all students can succeed.

Overall, the conference budget would have left total school funding 2.9 percent below pre-Recession levels when adjusted for enrollment growth and inflation. This figure underestimates the actual budget pressures faced by North Carolina’s public schools, as schools’ largest cost drivers – salary and benefit costs – have increased faster than traditional measures of inflation.

It’s more informative, therefore, to look at how schools’ resource levels have changed. Of the 24 biggest allotments in FY 08-09, 20 of them remain below their pre-Recession levels (see tables here and here). Compared to FY 08-09, the state is providing schools with:

  • Nearly 800 fewer teachers
  • Nearly 500 fewer instructional support personnel (psychologists, nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians, etc.)
  • The dollar equivalent of 7,730 fewer teacher assistants
  • Cuts of more than 40 percent to textbooks, classroom supplies, and school technology

Some argue that pre-Recession levels are an arbitrarily high bar, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In FY 08-09, North Carolina ranked 42nd for school funding effort (the percentage of school spending as a share of our economy). That same year, EdWeek gave North Carolina a grade of “F” for our school funding level. Returning school budgets to pre-Recession levels is the bare minimum we should expect from a budget proposal (this applies to you, too, Governor Cooper).

If this budget were to become law, the Class of 2021 will have spent their entire academic careers – from kindergarten through 12th grade – under austerity budgets. South Carolina now outspends us by more than 21 percent per student. The gap between North Carolina and our less-wealthy southern neighbors will undoubtedly grow under this budget.

Modern research has shown conclusively that budget cuts negatively impact student achievement as measured by standardized test scores. Consistent with the research, North Carolina’s austerity budgets appear to be having a negative impact on students. Since 2011, our ranking on national exams continues to fall relative to other states. Over the same period, we’ve experienced widening achievement gaps for Black students, Latinx students, and students from families with low incomes. This budget does nothing to reverse our state’s sliding performance or to provide the supports necessary to reverse widening levels of inequality.

The conference budget also fails to take the necessary measures to improve the recruitment and retention of educators. The pay plan barely keeps pace with inflation, providing an average raise of just 2 percent in FY 19-20. Starting pay will be frozen at $35,000 for the sixth consecutive year. Adjusted for inflation, the starting salary for teachers in FY 20-21 will be about 9.5 percent below the starting salary in FY 15-16. And educators who marched on Raleigh will be disappointed to learn (but sadly, not surprised) that none of their five May 1 policy priorities were funded.

Schools’ lowest-paid employees – teacher assistants, custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers – are treated even worse under this budget, getting raises of just 1 percent. This disrespectfully miserly raise comes just one year after these very same workers were excluded from a state policy guaranteeing a $15 per hour minimum wage for state employees. They and other school workers are excluded from the provision of five bonus leave days that this budget provides to all other state employees and community college staff.

Public school workers will likely be toiling in deteriorating buildings for years to come. The conference budget fails to include a school bond proposal that would have guaranteed every school district help with meeting the state’s more than $8.1 billion in school capital needs. Instead, the General Assembly has decided to fund school capital needs via annual appropriations through something called the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund (SCIF). Under this scheme, schools should receive $454 million over the biennium. But beyond that, there’s no promise that schools will ever receive additional capital funding via the SCIF.

The process for distributing SCIF funds to school districts is a mess. Local governments can’t enter into contracts based on the supposed promise of SCIF funding. They have to wait until awards are provided in order to begin any work, greatly complicating projects. And awards will be based on who has “the greatest need,” which will be determined by the judgment of Mark Johnson rather than any rational, objective criteria. With interest rates at historic lows, the failure to pass a statewide school bond that provides guaranteed funding to every district is incomprehensible.

What makes this all so incomprehensible is that the state could easily afford to address our schools’ needs. An additional round of corporate tax cuts in this year’s budget, when added to those already passed, leaves us with nearly $4 billion per year in lost revenue.

Giving teachers a 5 percent raise and extending the $15 minimum wage to noncertified employees would require $307 million above what is provided in this budget. Restoring all allotments to their pre-Recession levels would require an additional $727 million above what is provided in this budget. We can afford to do these things.

The state can also afford to do much more to meet school capital needs. Budget writers left $927 million of nonrecurring money just sitting on the bottom line. This money is unspent, serving no productive purpose. If this $927 million had instead been appropriated for school capital projects (or any other capital projects, to be frank), we would be creating jobs while simultaneously building infrastructure that will benefit communities for years to come.

The only positive from this budget is that it omitted some of the most boneheaded policy ideas floated in the House and Senate budgets. The conference proposal omits on-line pre-K, putting curriculum in the hands of extremists, and it retains school districts’ right to sue for more capital funding.

But legislative leaders deserve no praise for backing off from bad ideas. Nor do they deserve any praise for neglecting school children’s needs for an entire decade.

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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.