Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
Gov. Roy Cooper was in Fayetteville last Tuesday to campaign for his proposed boost in education funding. As he visited Massey Hill Classical High School, he called for state lawmakers to back his proposals for increasing teacher and principal pay and for investing in school safety.
While the Republican leaders of the General Assembly have proposed a 6 percent average teacher raise for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Cooper wants 8 percent. He’s pushing for a more aggressive effort to return teacher salaries to the middle of the national pack, where is where they stood before the Great Recession.
“I have proposed a budget, which is now currently with the General Assembly, that puts us on track to get to at least the national average,” he said Tuesday. “Thirty-seventh in the country in teacher pay is unacceptable. Thirty-ninth in the country in per-pupil expenditure for our public schools in unacceptable.”
He’s right, but the Democratic governor didn’t win over any of the Republicans who own a veto-proof majority and can do pretty much what they want. On Thursday, they made that clear — as they have so many times before. Anything Cooper wants has a snowball-in-Hades chance of passage. So it is with the school budget.
The GOP is sticking with its own plan for raises and is only appropriating $35 million for school safety enhancements. Cooper wanted about $100 million more than that to hire more school resource officers, nurses, counselors and psychologists, in addition to making improvements in school buildings that would make them better defended against active shooters.
How far will $35 million go in providing safety improvements? Not far at all. The funding breaks down to a little over $300,000 for each of the state’s 115 school districts, or just over $13,000 for each of the state’s more than 2,500 public school buildings — about enough to put nice new locks on all the school doors, and just forget about hiring more safety personnel.
It’s no surprise, though, that legislative leaders balked at Cooper’s plan, because he was going to finance all these investments in teacher pay and student safety by holding up personal income tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 a year and another cut in the state’s corporate income tax, which is already two percentage points lower than any other state’s rate. The Republican theory is that previous cuts are a key reason why business is booming in North Carolina, and there is likely some truth in that, although overall improvements in the national business climate are probably a larger factor.
The trouble is, those cuts aren’t a gift that keeps on giving — at some point, the tax cuts will fail to stimulate further growth and will instead compromise government’s ability to respond to the needs of a fast-growing state.
It appears likely that this latest round of cuts marks exactly that point of vanishing returns. Just as top-paying high-tech businesses like Apple and Amazon are looking at serious investments here, bad budget decisions threaten to compromise our education system’s ability to provide the highly skilled workforce those industries need. All of our serious competitor states for those jobs invest more in public education. A WalletHub study last year of the best states for teachers ranked North Caroline 45th in the country, ahead of only Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Hawaii and Arizona. That’s likely one more indicator of our difficulties moving forward in attracting the best and brightest teachers to this state.
But the budget — for education and everything else as well — is a done deal. Legislative leaders are fast-tracking budget adjustments and not opening the process to debate or amendments. Instead, House and Senate GOP leaders have been secretly negotiating the details for the past few weeks and will unveil the budget plan soon. A final vote approving it should follow quickly.
Cooper’s only consolation is that the GOP leaders are handing the Democrats a big campaign issue that may be a force in the November elections. This year, it may be the biggest issue on the ballot — it’s about time, isn’t it?