Budget recap: with friends like these …

It could have been worse. That’s a lukewarm appreciation of any outcome, the kind of thing you’d say after a fall that broke only one of your legs, but that’s the best assessment we can muster about the newly minted state budget. The compromise finally OK’d Saturday doesn’t do the damage to public education that the state Senate’s original plan would have wrought, but neither is the final product as friendly to education as Republican budget-writers want North Carolinians — especially North Carolinians of voting age — to believe. http://tinyurl.com/okqorgy

The General Assembly ended up allocating $8.1 billion to public education. About $373 million of that is going to salaries and benefits, the greatest portion (about 82 percent) to teachers. You may have heard that North Carolina teachers got a pay raise. If you didn’t, you don’t know and never see any Republicans. The same crowd that last year squeezed education spending, increased class size, cut teacher assistants and ignored teachers’ need for a raise — while at the same time honeying up to charter schools and private schools — now crows about its commitment to teacher pay. No one means to appear ungrateful, but the magic behind the pay increase that averages 7 percent is hardly Houdini quality.

Legislators front-loaded the raises and left our most experiences teachers with so small an increase it could qualify as an illusion. By ending longevity pay — an annual bonus that went to teachers after more than 10 years of service — and folding that money into this year’s raise, the General Assembly gave these veterans something they were already entitled to get. The new step schedule caps base pay at $50,000 annually at 25 years of service, creating another disincentive for staying in the job. (Teachers already making more than $50,000 are grandfathered, so that their current pay becomes their base pay.)

It’s good the compromise budget didn’t include the Senate provision tying pay raises to the elimination of teacher tenure and that it restored money eliminated last year that allows higher pay for teachers in the process of earning advanced degrees. It’s not so good that those who haven’t started that process are out of luck. It’s also not good that this budget eliminated the 28-year-old Teaching Fellows program, an effective recruitment effort that provided scholarships and professional training for North Carolina students who commit to working in the classroom.

Unfortunately, the state faces a revenue shortfall, the result of tax cuts enacted last year and slower-than-expected wage growth since. Spending more on teacher salaries had to result in cuts elsewhere in the budget, some of them in the education budget. Teacher assistants, the focal point of the pay raise fracas between the Senate and House, disappeared as a point of contention when senators and representatives went into conference committee. Lo and behold, teacher assistant jobs had been saved. Or so the story goes.

School superintendents know otherwise. The actual budget numbers show 22 percent less money allocated for TAs. Furthermore, that allocation comes from anticipated lottery revenue, meaning at the very least that this battle will be fought again next year. (This story from The Free Press touches on both teacher salaries and teacher assistant positions http://tinyurl.com/lr97gdd)

What impact that cut will have on LCPS staffing, if it has any impact, can’t be determined until the school district receives allotment information from the Department of Public Instruction. The same goes for other cuts — the 1 percent reduction statewide in school transportation funds or, in a less direct way, the 5 percent cut to DPI itself — as well as for some spending increases, such as the $42 million earmarked for new teachers statewide as a result of revised guidelines for teacher-student ratio in K-1 classes. This last may or may not help here, depending on enrollment and other factors.

Though he hadn’t as of this writing, we’re assuming Gov. McCrory will sign this budget bill because last weekend he said he would. We’ll also assume agreement on a couple of other things: 1) a budget reveals the priorities of the people who put it together and 2) compensation reveals the value an employer puts on an employee. In that light, this budget says the leaders of our state legislature think: experience counts for little in the classroom, the state has no role in developing top-notch teachers, there’s no benefit in rewarding teachers who take it upon themselves to become more skilled, legislators know better than educators how to staff a classroom, and employees of school systems who are not teachers are also not as valuable as other state employees.

The guy who keeps things clean at Caswell Center will get a $1,000 raise and five additional vacation days. The guys who keeps things clean at your public school will get a $500 raise. That is all.