North Carolina lawmakers: Time’s up to write an education budget, pay our teachers

North Carolina lawmakers: Time’s up to write an education budget, pay our teachers

Next week is Halloween. Shortly after that comes the holidays.

Which is to say that the N.C. General Assembly is more than nine months into its deliberations in Raleigh, and they still haven’t delivered this squealing baby — in other words, a budget that appropriately funds North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school children.

Lawmakers tossed the blame back and forth in a Senate appropriations committee Wednesday morning, as Republicans announced plans for principal pay raises and, at the least, continued “step” increases for teachers, not including the larger raises that would likely land in an approved budget.

The fault, longtime Sen. Jerry Tillman insisted, lies with Gov. Roy Cooper, who vetoed the GOP’s approved budget plan way back in June, when all of us were younger. Cooper’s stands on Medicaid expansion and teacher pay raises can’t be sustained “unless you take it out of taxpayers’ pockets,” Tillman said, according to a News & Observer reporter, although it could be argued that, to sustain GOP tax breaks, Republicans have rudely foisted the money from educators’ pockets. 

But Cooper, who hosted a K-12 roundtable in Onslow County Monday, depicted Republican lawmakers as intractable misers. 

“Our teachers deserve not just a significant pay raise, but also our respect,” Cooper reportedly told educators down east. “Right now, teachers haven’t gotten raises because Republican legislators won’t negotiate with me and won’t respond to my balanced budget compromise proposal that included a significant teacher pay raise.”

Step forward, now to the side, and here comes the dip! No one asked for this dance lesson, but we’re getting it anyway. 

Principals and teachers don’t need much guidance in this discussion anyway. It’s a simple bit of arithmetic to discern that Republican leadership has boldly skimped on public schools in the last decade, only shifting at times of enormous public pressure.

Much has been made of Medicaid’s role in this year’s budget standoff, and rightfully so, but the chasm is just as wide between the Republican and Democratic plans for education spending. And it has been, since before some of the children in our schools were born.

 

Indeed, this year’s GOP education budget bundled an average 3.8% raise for teachers, compared to an 8.5% boost from Cooper. But, of course, there’s more to the education budget than teacher pay, and in virtually every area, Cooper is more willing to pay for the pressing needs of North Carolina’s public schools. 

Much has been made of Medicaid’s role in this year’s budget standoff, and rightfully so, but the chasm is just as wide between the Republican and Democratic plans for education spending. And it has been, since before some of the children in our schools were born.

The Republican motivation — budgeting billions of dollars in tax cuts, part of a badly flawed theory of economic development — is rewarding to the conservative base, but little else. The GOP’s latest proposed cut, rolled out in a Senate finance committee Tuesday, is more proof of their misplaced affection. 

North Carolina’s public schools do not know when they will receive a spending plan with the raises, textbook funding, digital tools, and support staff they have been promised, but Republicans in key legislative spending committees already have their eyes on another prized tax cut.  

Certainly, voters are sweet on tax cuts, and politicians like a cheap, easy means of wooing voters. But while these big-business boons may be easy, they’re not cheap. The public infrastructure of this state, its schools, is a testament to the glaring inadequacy of past budget cycles

And North Carolina school leaders are out of patience. A diplomatically-penned letter Tuesday from Earnest Winston, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — the second-largest school system in North Carolina — says as much.

Earnest Winston, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (Photo courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools)

“The state’s budget impasse is becoming a kitchen-table issue for our families and students in Mecklenburg County,” Winston wrote to Cooper, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. 

“North Carolina funds about two-thirds of our operating budget,” Winston continued. “It’s now October. The lack of an enacted budget is hurting our students, our staff, and our schools.”

Winston states what should be obvious to our Raleigh leaders. If lawmakers and the governor wish to have a budget, they should be engaged in meaningful discussions of compromise. There was no compromise in Speaker Moore’s mendacious veto override in the House last month, and it speaks volumes of the GOP’s cagey theatrics that the Senate has not, to this point, convinced a Democrat to break ranks over the governor’s veto.

Just like the 20,000 or so boiling teachers who’ve descended on Raleigh to protest in the last two years, the minority party in Raleigh is angry. And, without the GOP’s veto-proof supermajorities, without the ill-gotten goods of a gerrymandered map, that anger matters.

“Please find a resolution to the budget impasse,” CMS’ Winston wrote Tuesday. “Please give our students the programming options and staffing needs that were promised. Please give our dedicated staff the money that was promised. Our state needs an enacted budget so that North Carolina can honor its public commitments to public education.”

Berger has indicated that he wishes to leave Raleigh by Halloween. Moore was less committed to that departure date. But when lawmakers finally depart, hopefully with a K-12 budget agreement in pocket, they will be missed far less than the budget certainty our schools deserve at this autumnal hour.

“Millions of birds darkened the skies over Scotland Neck, descended on the town — and stayed,” Our State Magazine wrote in a Tweet Wednesday. “Sort of like the General Assembly,” Cohen replied.

Longtime General Assembly attorney Gerry Cohen summed it up fittingly Wednesday morning, in reacting to a Tweet from Our State Magazine concerning a bizarre 1969 bird invasion in eastern North Carolina. 

“Millions of birds darkened the skies over Scotland Neck, descended on the town — and stayed,” the magazine wrote. “Sort of like the General Assembly,” Cohen replied.