Unfinished business: education still hot topic

A sure sign the General Assembly didn’t save public education from the jaws of Hell this summer, despite what legislative leaders like to claim, is the fact that there’s still so much disagreement about what actually happened. If indeed lawmakers did teachers such a great service and made the state’s education system stronger, friends of public schools would be grinning like a bunch of East Carolina football fans. Instead, they’re yelling, We wuz robbed.

A strong difference of opinion, you could say, has surfaced in the race for U.S. Senate, where the candidates’ support of public schools has become the dominant issue. The problem for voters is that they both say they’ve done more. As evidence, Rep. Thom Tillis, the Republican House leader hoping to unseat incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, touts the 7 percent average pay raise teachers received from the legislature. Hagan’s camp paints her opponent as a phony who’s overstating the value of the pay raise and ignoring the cuts made to basic education.

Either money earmarked for public schools increased by $1 billion in the current budget or decreased by $500 million. Or both things happened, depending on how you interpret the numbers. In comparing the FY 2015 budget with the FY 2009 budget, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction looks at it this way: In FY 2014-15, $1,307,432,896 of the $8,766,572,776 Appropriated and Receipt-funded resources is associated with employee salary and benefit changes since FY 2008-09. Put another way, the total funding for public schools increased $60,214,282 since FY 2008-09; but, if you back out the funding added for benefit cost increases and salary adjustments, the funding available for classroom activities (textbooks, transportation, teacher assistants, teachers, etc.) has been reduced by over $1 billion.

To that is added: Total funding has remained essentially flat since 08-09 despite an increase of 43,739 students. As a result, districts have had to accomplish more with less money per student. (Here are the numbers: http://tinyurl.com/mmxq4pn)

News & Observer editorial page editor Ned Barnett referred to these calculations in his Sunday column that highlights the dueling-teacher ads the Senate candidates are using. http://tinyurl.com/kgj3zyd He also looks at funding in an individual school district. Fortunately, LCPS saw an increase in state funding, thanks primarily to an increase in teacher position allotments and despite a 21 percent cut in money for teacher assistants. LCPS was able to average that loss and gain to avoid layoffs, but some districts weren’t so lucky, despite the alleged extra $1 billion.

On the following page of that Sunday edition, another voice was heard from on the education issue. Jim Hunt, who can rightly lay claim to the title Education Governor after his work during his 1993-2001 tenure, defines the issue in personal terms and brings the discussion down to the level where it belongs — teachers and their classrooms. http://tinyurl.com/loyzhfq

Hunt pats himself on the back a few times and he even has props for Jim Holshouser, the Republican who preceded Hunt’s first term; but about the past General Assembly session, he mainly thinks legislators got it wrong. Hunt writes: “State lawmakers need to go back to the drawing board if they are going to show teachers that they are valued.”

Teachers are smart enough not to be taken in by a campaign ad and they can do enough math to know that 7 percent raise works out to pocket change in some cases. Say what he wants, Thom Tillis is no hero to teachers. And he’s no Jim Hunt.