Budget plan: keeping public education in its place

If people in North Carolina’s public schools had to choose straight up between the biennial budget proposal put together in the N.C. House and the plan hatched in the N.C. Senate, they’d be no choice. While hardly providing everything educators feel is necessary to improve public education in the state, the House budget does show some respect for the people who work in public schools, does make amends for some mistakes made last year (see Wednesday’s post on driver ed funding) and does concede that some things — like adequate staffing and money for books — are essential to school operation. The Senate budget, on the other hand, just continues to grind its heel into the institution that educates virtually all of North Carolina’s school-age young people, advancing an agenda that attempts to devalue public schools and the people who work in them.

There’s no doubt the Senate’s budget proposal will win approval in the upper chamber. We can only hope that when the two plans collide in conference committee the finished product will have more of what the House envisions and less of what the Senate wants. For example:

Teacher pay: Both budget plans, like Gov. Pat McCrory’s, essentially fulfill a promise made last year to raise a teacher’s starting pay to $35,000 a year. The House is alone in considering raises for all teachers, including teachers in the proposal to give all state employees a 2 percent pay increase. The Senate spends less than the House on teacher raises and focuses on less experienced teachers, to the detriment of those with serious experience. Teachers with 25 or more years experience find their salaries under the Senate plan still capped at $50,000. Unlike the House, the Senate provides no additional pay for teachers who obtain a master’s degree in the areas in which they teach.

Teacher assistants: The Senate continues its campaign to eliminate TA’s from public schools. The state now employs 7,000 fewer TA’s than it did in 2007. If the Senate’s thinking prevails, another 8,500 TA positions will be eliminated over the next two years — contrary to the House’s plan to keep funding for TA’s at the current level. The Senate says its plan for wholesale layoffs — purportedly the largest layoff of state employees ever in North Carolina — makes sense because it will allow for the hiring of 2,000 more teachers and the resulting reduction of average class size in grades K-3.

Smaller classes seem appealing because they promise more individual attention to students. Unfortunately, you don’t get that correlation when a second adult is removed from early-grade classrooms, a second adult who can work with students in a small group or one-on-one setting, as well as help the teacher manage the class and meet children’s emotional needs. We would bet a large sum that few adults — and fewer members of the General Assembly — would spend a full day alone in a first-grade classroom, whether it held 15 students or 25. Having more adults in a school building is a good thing, but the current trend bucks the obvious — more students and fewer teachers and teacher assistants.

Senators apparently failed to fully consider a couple of other issues associated with this proposal. More teachers will require more classrooms. That could be a problem in school districts where schools are already crowded. Even in Lenoir County, where we are blessed with some room in our schools, the possible influx of teachers puts the dialogue between county commissioners and school district administrators about school capacity in a different light. And we need to remind senators again that teacher assistants also drive school buses. If the legislature sends 8,500 of them home, children are going to have a very hard time getting to school.

Driver education: See Wednesday’s post. In short, the House funds the program, the Senate doesn’t. For a fraction of the state’s total budget — about a tenth of 1 percent — the Senate could continue a program that is an integral part of North Carolina’s graduated licensing system and could ensure it is available to all students. Instead, failure to fund driver ed will rob young people who can’t afford the instruction of value instruction and behind-the-wheel experience.

Vouchers: That the fate of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program — that is, vouchers that would give students public money to attend private schools — hangs on a pending decision by the N.C. Supreme Court about its constitutionality (or that it’s lost that argument at every stop on its way to the high court) hasn’t discouraged Republicans in either chamber from pushing the program. Both the House and Senate want to pump $6.8 million more into it, spending $17.6 million during each of the next two years. The Senate, however, makes that funding recurring — an automatic part of the budget — every year going forward.

Technology and books:
Neither the Senate nor the House recognizes the rapid transition in public education to digital learning; and neither does enough to support the acquisition of technology or the kind of sustainable funding stream that will ensure broad success. The House does much more, however, earmarking $93.5 million more for books and digital resources over the next two years. The Senate plan would spend $58 million.

Overall, not much has changed from last year, with the same Republicans pushing the same anti-public education agenda like a rock up a hill and the same disagreements setting the stage for the same unsatisfying compromises. That’s politics, all right, but it’s a particularly disappointing kind of politics in a year when North Carolina enjoys a revenue surplus and has the opportunity to really move public education forward, rather than trying to keep it in its place.