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Education leaders say House budget falls short

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Image: Adobe Stock

Based on the state House budget plan, North Carolina teachers may be virtually assured of at least some raises in the upcoming school year, but the state’s top teacher advocacy organization says state lawmakers have still “fallen short” of their promises to educators.

“This isn’t treating us as a profession,” says Mark Jewell, a Greensboro teacher who serves as president of the N.C. Association of Educators [2] (NCAE). “This is a stopgap measure for funding schools.”

Jewell’s comments came hours after state House lawmakers unfurled their full biennial budget, which includes varying raises for teachers and school administrators (page 87 of the House budget [3]) over the next two years.

The House plan, released after 10 p.m. Tuesday night, includes an average pay increase of about 3 percent for the state’s current teachers in 2017-2018, legislative staff say. In the second year of that plan, average pay balloons by about 9 percent.

Depending on a teacher’s level of experiences, the raises range from less than 1 percent to nearly 7 percent. For many teachers, it would amount to a raise of between $300 to $550, although some mid-career teachers would see more than $1,000 increases in their annual pay. Teachers in year 19 would receive the largest increase, taking in an additional $3,050.

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NCAE’s Mark Jewell

The across-the-board raises found in the state House plan differ from a state Senate proposal that dispenses the lion’s share of its raises for mid-career teachers, spurring criticism that GOP budget writers short-changed North Carolina’s beginning and veteran teachers.

Yet the House plan, as Jewell pointed out Wednesday, still stops short of the multi-year pay increases proposed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper [5], which would, according to the governor’s office, raise teacher pay to the national average in five years and to tops in the southeast in three years.

Meanwhile, with some teachers expecting a $600 hike in health insurance premiums under the state plan next year, many teachers—those slated for raises of between $300 to $550 under the House plan—would essentially receive a pay cut, Jewell says.

“We need to make teaching again into a career and not a job,” said Jewell. “Under the past administration with the majority party in power, they’ve made it into a temporary profession. We are paying severely the price for it right now.”

Despite the criticism, North Carolina teacher pay has been on the rise after multiple years of stagnation. National reports ranked the state’s teacher pay near the bottom of the nation in recent years, although a recent estimate reports that ranking will rise to 35th in the coming year.

Nevertheless, Jewell says he expects the House teacher pay plan to have a limited impact on North Carolina’s well-documented teacher shortage. North Carolina officials have reported a prodigious drop in university students seeking teaching degrees and many districts, particularly those in rural and low-performing areas, say recruiting has become increasingly onerous in recent years.

He says the House and Senate plans are less “comprehensive” than Cooper’s budget, bypassing sharp funding increases in textbooks and digital materials. Cooper’s budget includes a non-recurring $10 million boost from lottery receipts in the budget over the next two years—offsetting previous $10 million cuts from the legislature—coupled with a $3 million increase in recurring spending.

The Senate plan [6] offers a $10 million boost each year in recurring spending on textbooks and digital materials along with a one-time, $1.1 million increase, while the House proposal lobs a non-recurring, $10 million boost to a funding category that K-12 advocates say has plunged far short of the state’s pre-recession spending.

Public education advocates say the dearth of funding has forced teachers to shell out more of their own cash to pay for classroom supplies. The House proposal has already come under withering criticism from public school advocates.

“They’re making sure that (voucher) money is reoccurring, but not for textbooks,” said Jewell. “Tell me the rationale on that. At the end of the day, public schools are going to be teaching the majority, 1.5 million students, and we’re going to be doing it with less resources.”

Jewell is referring to a House budget proposal that includes a $10 million boost to the state’s promised expansion of a private school voucher program, despite reports from state workers that awards used in the so-called Opportunity Scholarship Program have fallen short of their budgeted amount this fiscal year.

Nevertheless, the budget cites a “critical need” for school choice options in the state, growing North Carolina’s annual investment from $34.8 million this year to $44.8 million next year. By 2027-2028, the state’s annual commitment to vouchers would swell to $144.8 million, based on the GOP-controlled legislature’s plan.

Vouchers, which provide public funding for private school tuition, have widespread support among state Republicans who say parents are demanding more choices in K-12 education.

However, critics say private schools lack the accountability and non-discrimination requirements placed on public schools. A House budget proposal would at least partially take up that criticism, setting aside $1 million for an independent report on voucher recipients’ academic outcomes and requiring that voucher students take part in a national, standardized test.

Yet it bypasses non-discrimination protections in the mostly religious schools, despite multiple reports of anti-LGBTQ admissions policies. [8]

The initial response from public school advocates has been lukewarm to the overall House plan, although some K-12 leaders have complimented a House proposal to spend an additional $11.3 million each year on students with disabilities and relaunch a GOP-axed Teaching Fellows program that provides university scholarships in exchange for a commitment to teach in North Carolina.

They’ve also cheered a House decision to bypass sharp, 25-percent cuts for the Department of Public Instruction [9], although funding cuts to the state’s K-12 agency—which provides support and training for school districts statewide—are likely to be revisited when Senate and House lawmakers confer on the widespread differences in their spending plans in the coming weeks.

Members of the state House have been rolling out portions of the chamber’s budget since last week, although they were expected to act quickly this week since releasing the full spending plan late Tuesday night. That vote would come a matter of weeks after the state Senate passed their $22.9 billion budget in the early morning hours of May 12, after releasing the 361-page document around midnight on May 9.

House and Senate Republican leaders have been under fire from Democrats who point out both chambers developed their budgets mostly behind closed doors. Last week, Democrats lambasted the House GOP for calling a vote on the plan [10] in a subcommittee meeting just hours after many lawmakers saw the budget for the first time.