BENSON (November 1, 2023) – Is North Carolina spending enough on public education? The vast divide between conservative and progressive answers to that question was on full display at a recent debate on education funding.
The forum at the Benson Civic Center was the final installment in a four-week series of Home Town Debates on education topics sponsored by Spectrum News and the NC Institute of Political Leadership. Higher Ed Works and BEST NC served as advisors for the series.
State Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, Chair of both the Senate Education and Senate Appropriations Committees, said the state is spending enough – but it can do better.
But Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, the Senate Democratic Whip, said the state is still not meeting the requirements of the state constitution for every child to have an opportunity for a sound, basic education.
Chaudhuri pointed to the state’s teacher shortage and how, despite an average raise of 7% for teachers over the next two years in the new state budget, veteran teachers will receive only a 1.5% raise over two years.
He noted that a five-fold expansion of vouchers for students to receive tax dollars to attend private schools will amount to nearly $1.4 billion over the next eight years – and that the state didn’t continue pandemic child-care subsidies for the state’s youngest learners, forcing several child-care centers in Western North Carolina to close.
Alexandra Sirota, Executive Director of the NC Budget and Tax Center, said North Carolina ranks dead last among the states in funding effort, when measured by the percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) it devotes to K-12 education.
Changing that will require choosing children’s education over tax cuts, Sirota said.
“Compared to states across the country, we’re falling behind,” she said.
Raises for North Carolina teachers simply have not kept up with inflation, Sirota said.
Lee said some counties can’t provide enough to supplement teacher salaries to compete with urban counties, so the state stepped in to provide supplements of as much as $5,000 in those largely rural counties.
Yet Chaudhuri noted that the state had 5,000 teacher vacancies when school started last year, and too many teachers have a second job.
“It really is about how we value the profession,” he said.
He also pointed out that Gov. Roy Cooper proposed an average raise for teachers of 18% over two years, but the legislature didn’t grant teachers even a double-digit percentage raise.
Mitch Kokai, Director of Communications for the John Locke Foundation, said the legislature did a good job emphasizing larger raises for starting teachers, but didn’t “sell” the notion of accelerating progression up the pay scale for veteran teachers.
In a discussion of school safety measures, Kokai said it’s a matter of priorities. But Sirota again pointed to successive tax cuts the General Assembly has approved in recent years.
“When we restrict the dollars that are available, we get presented with a lot of false choices,” she said.
Help for Poor Districts
The state provides various forms of support for teachers and students in the state’s poor counties. Sirota said that support is critical if each county is to provide the same opportunities for every child.
Lee noted that the state provides 62% of K-12 school funds in North Carolina, compared with a national average of 47%.
“The state really needs to step in, and the state has stepped in,” he said. “As we need to do more, we certainly will.”
But Chaudhuri said that both poor and wealthy counties are forced to supplement teacher pay because the state hasn’t done its part.
“I think low-wealth communities and, frankly, high-wealth communities have no choice but to supplement, because the General Assembly has decided they’re going to fund at a certain level,” he said.
Wake County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, so the Wake County commissioners feel they must supplement teacher pay, Chaudhuri said. He noted that more than 40 local Boards of Education say the new state budget is inadequate for public education.
The 29-year-old Leandro lawsuit over state support for public schools is headed back to the NC Supreme Court – now controlled by a Republican majority – for a new hearing.
Kokai said the Leandro plan endorsed last year by a then-Democratic Supreme Court was developed by Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration and plaintiffs in the case without ever consulting the General Assembly.
The latest order in the case said the state owes public schools an additional $677.8 million.1 Lee said the plan was developed outside the legislature and before the pandemic – and everything has now changed.
But Chaudhuri said that disparities remain between poor and wealthy school districts.
“I think Leandro seeks to level the playing field,” he said.
The new state budget outlines a plan to expand vouchers for students to receive public money to attend private schools from $95 million in 2022-23 to $520 million in 2032-33.2
Kokai said the voucher expansion will give parents choices. It will also force traditional schools to compete for students, he said, but at least 75% of parents will continue to choose to keep their children in public schools.
Sirota noted that private schools don’t have to serve every child – they can discriminate – and private schools are often unaccountable because they aren’t required to administer the same tests as public schools.
Chaudhuri added that while vouchers were initially proposed to help low-income families, the General Assembly lifted any income caps in the new budget, which means taxpayers will subsidize millionaires’ children who attend private schools.
The voucher expansion is projected to mean a $200 million reduction in funds for private schools, he said.
A Better Way?
Lee said legislators want to create a new funding formula for public schools. The state measures “seat time,” he said, over competency measures.
While the state has separate systems for Pre-K, early childhood, K-12, community college and UNC systems, “We really need to have one education system in North Carolina,” Lee said.
Chaudhuri said the question is whether funding for public schools is adequate.
“Our K through 12 funding has actually decreased as a percentage of our overall state budget,” he said.
“We’re not doing enough to raise our teacher pay, to make sure we have competent principals … and that our kids have the resources they need so they can have the best outcome possible, regardless of the ZIP code that they grow up in,” he said.
Sirota noted that once the tax cuts in the new state budget take full effect, they are projected to cost the state $13 billion a year, which is roughly equivalent to the state’s K-12 education budget now. Legislators have chosen to cut taxes, she said, rather than invest in public schools.
“My vote is (children) should be the first priority, ahead of corporate interests and the wealthy,” she said.