In Matthew 6:21, Jesus says “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This simply means that you know a person’s priorities by where he or she invests. Members of the General Assembly often say that the future of our state is dependent on the quality of education received by our children. Unfortunately, the state’s new budget shows that our legislature’s heart is not with improving public education.
Let’s start with students. The amount of available spaces for at-risk four-year olds in the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten (NCPK) program has been drastically cut. In her last year in office, former Gov. Bev Perdue created 5,000 additional slots for children, reacting to a court case ruling that all eligible at-risk four-year olds that applied to NCPK must be enrolled.
In this budget, the General Assembly cut those slots in half. Now only 25,000 students will be served in the second year of this budget, rather than the over 29,400 students served in 2012-2013. Even though research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman shows that for every dollar spent on early childhood education, we get a $7 return on the investment, this legislature decided to cut slots. Clearly, their hearts are not with our preschoolers because the treasure is not there.
One might think that money wasn’t allocated to preschoolers in order to fund investments in K-12 students. Unfortunately, that is incorrect; this is another area where the General Assembly’s budget falls short.
One example: class sizes. The legislature decided it would not require certain teacher-to-student ratios, arguing that they were allowing superintendents “freedom” to put the money where it was needed. The truth is that the amount of money given to school districts falls so short that teachers and teaching assistants will certainly lose jobs. Research demonstrates that smaller class sizes, particularly in the lower grades, produce better results. Apparently, legislators’ hearts are not better educational outcomes, because the treasure is not there either.
If student safety is paramount, as legislators claim, then school transportation would seem important. Yet funding also falls short here. In the last budget, transportation was cut, and this budget is no different. School buses will be on the road longer in an effort to save money.
If you add all of the places in which the budget falls short for students, you can understand why North Carolina is 48th in the nation in per pupil spending. To claim to care about students is one thing. It is an entirely different matter to put your money where your mouth is.
North Carolina’s spending on teachers is also awful. The state is 46th in the nation in teacher pay. It takes 15 years for a teacher to make $40,000 per year. This budget does not make things any better for teachers, who did not receive a pay raise. The General Assembly also eliminated the bump in salary a teacher received for having a Master’s Degree and removed a teacher’s right to tenure in favor of one- to four- year contracts. There is a hidden cost in the loss of tenure. Superintendents and school administrators will now have to spend much of their time contracting with their workforce.
The North Carolina legislature did fund some things. The budget will provide $10 million over two years to Teach for America, a program in which well-meaning students go into low-income, high-needs schools after six weeks of training. TFA gets an incredible amount of private donations; the $10 million it receives from North Carolina could be better used on teacher development programs. In essence, the legislature put its money in a short-term program which does not develop teachers or stability in schools instead of making sure our teachers understand how their training as educators makes our school system better.
There was also a budget provision to spend $10 million for low-income students to get vouchers to attend private and religious schools. Even though there is no evidence vouchers increase student achievement, the General Assembly will fund not only fund this proposal in 2014-15, it has every intention of increasing program funding in the future.
There is no way to believe that this General Assembly really cares about the importance of public education to our state. When given the chance to invest in our children, they drained the resources of time, talent and treasure from public schools and commenced turning it over to private corporations and undertrained workers.
Put simply, this legislature’s heart is with privatizing public education, because that is where the state’s treasure is.
Chris Hill is the Director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.