Our Opinion: $1.9 billion bond a bipartisan win for public schools

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When state Rep.-elect Rachel Hunt predicted bipartisan support for improvements to North Carolina’s perennially underfunded public school system, we chalked it up to wishful thinking given all the recent rancor in Raleigh.

Three weeks after the incoming Mecklenburg County legislator and daughter of former Gov. Jim Hunt made her rosy forecast, however, House Speaker Tim Moore proved her right.

Fresh off his election to a third term as speaker, Moore announced Thursday that he’d throw his support behind a $1.9 billion school bond referendum that failed to gain traction among Republican leaders during the General Assembly’s 2017 long session. Moore pledged that he himself would file a bill to add a school bond question to the 2020 general election ballot.

“Education is what matters most to families and businesses — to the private and public sectors alike — and North Carolina is poised to build on historic commitments to our schools with another long-term investment in capital construction for our rapidly growing student population,” the Cleveland County Republican said in a statement on his website.

The effort to fund school construction has seen its fortunes rise after GOP supermajorities turned up their noses at the Public School Building Bond Act of 2017. That bill to authorize a referendum during the 2018 midterm had some bipartisan support — we note approvingly that Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, and Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, were both co-sponsors — but ultimately went nowhere fast.

Wilson County Schools was in line for $15.3 million under the 2017 bill. That money is sorely needed as many of our well-worn school buildings continue to show their age.

While the last draft of the previous bond bill, a committee substitute adopted in the House Education Committee, sought to devote all $1.9 billion to the state’s K-12 public schools, Moore has proposed a more modest allocation. The speaker’s plan calls for $1.3 billion to be shared among local school districts and reserves $300 million each for the University of North Carolina System and N.C. Community College System.

It remains to be seen whether Gov. Roy Cooper, who campaigned for the school bond in 2017, and supporters including the N.C. Association of Educators, North Carolina PTA and Public School Forum of North Carolina, are amenable to the new funding formula. Yet Moore’s overture shows an encouraging willingness to compromise on the GOP side that we hope legislative Democrats and previous bond backers would embrace.

School construction and renovation money is an immediate need, and even $1.3 billion or $1.9 billion barely scratches the surface. In April 2016, state officials estimated the total tab of K-12 infrastructure needs at $8 billion, and that figure could climb to $13 billion by 2026.

With Republicans and Democrats likely to be in one accord on the bond question, education policy experts like Rep.-elect Hunt can turn their focus to securing further increases in teacher pay and boosting principal salaries, which Hunt noted had fallen to 50th in the nation.

While the school construction bond is a worthy investment, we can’t pay our bills on billion-dollar credit cards forever. The state needs more recurring revenue to support public education. That’s why The Wilson Times is calling on lawmakers to legitimize, regulate and tax video sweepstakes centers and devote 100 percent of the proceeds to our schools.

Try as it might, the General Assembly can’t manage to put the sweepstakes gaming industry out of business. Every so often, new gambling laws shutter dozens of sweepstakes parlors. Then dozens more open featuring different machines running new software that operators say successfully skirts the state’s obsolete prohibition on placing bets.

Sweepstakes halls now exist in a legal gray area. Regardless, they’re here to stay and raking in money hand over fist. Lawmakers are burying their heads in the sand by refusing to extend legal recognition to the gaming industry and demand a cut of the action to support public schools.

As for moral resistance to gambling, that horse has been out of the barn for more than a decade. The N.C. Education Lottery ponied up $100 million for local school systems this year. A tax on sweepstakes gaming would serve as a much-needed multiplier.

We support the school bond and encourage lawmakers to approve language for the 2020 ballot without delay. More must be done for our public schools, but this, at least, would be a start.