School money needs could be big debate for NC legislature this year

Originally Published in Citizen Times

RALEIGH – The session of the North Carolina General Assembly that begins Wednesday is likely to be a battle of calculators and spreadsheets that will affect the future education of schoolchildren across the state.

Debates over money, particularly how much North Carolina spends on public schools, will take up much of legislators’ time during this year’s so-called short session.

Legislators adopt a two-year budget during long sessions held in odd-numbered years. The main purpose of the short sessions held in even-numbered years is to adjust it in light of new revenue data or other events.

The 15,000 to 20,000 teachers and others expected to rally outside and inside the Legislative Building Wednesday for more school spending — a gathering likely to be one of the largest protests the legislature has seen — will bring even more attention to the numbers.

Despite significant teacher pay raises legislators have approved in recent years, many teachers and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper argue that the state can afford to do better and should, not only on what it pays teachers but on funding for schools in general.

“North Carolina should treat educators like the professionals they are. They shouldn’t have to take to the streets to demand respect,” Cooper said when announcing his budget priorities last week.

The General Assembly’s Republican leaders say legislators have treated teachers well since the GOP took control of the state House and Senate in 2011, consistently approving teacher raises in recent years.

“Teacher raises have been a part of what we’ve done on a fairly consistent basis,” Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican leader of his chamber, told reporters in a recent conference call. “I think the numbers don’t lie on that and I think the numbers are fairly compelling.”

What’s the standard?

North Carolina had made major progress toward getting its teacher pay up to the national average before belt tightening forced by the recession at the end of last decade derailed efforts.

During a period that spans the 2011 switch of legislative control from Democratic to Republican, the General Assembly raised teacher pay only once from the 2009-10 fiscal year to 2013-14. The single increase, 1.2 percent in 2012-13, didn’t keep up with the rate of inflation.

But since then, legislators have loosened the purse strings. Over the past four years, teachers got raises of 7 percent, 2.1 percent, 4.7 percent and, most recently, 3.3 percent. The budget passed last year provides for a 6.2 percent average increase during the 2018-19 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Asked why teachers were descending on Raleigh despite such figures, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said politics were partly to blame.

“It seems to me this is part of a national thing that’s been orchestrated by Democrats all over the place,” he said in the conference call with Berger. “I don’t understand it. I think there’s misinformation out there.”

Far from dreading the crush of teachers expected here Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, said he is looking forward to meeting with them and talking about the raises in budget bills he has voted for.

“We have such a tremendous story to tell in North Carolina. I’m excited about the opportunity to talk about” raises in recent budgets, he said.

How much praise or blame you think legislators deserve for school funding levels in the state may depend on which yardstick you use.

The National Education Association, a teachers’ group, says North Carolina’s average pay stands at $50,861, ranking the state 37th in the country.

The buying power of teachers’ salaries in the state has actually fallen over the past 10 years, the NEA says. Once inflation is taken into account, the value of the state’s average pay fell 9.4 percent since 2009.

And, as Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, put it, “Teachers understand that it’s not just about salaries.”

The buying power of state government appropriations for education per student fell 15 percent from 2008-09 to 2016-17. The figure excludes the primarily local function of school construction.

That decline has put pressure on funds available for textbooks and supplies or to pay support staff like guidance counselors or principals. The state’s principal pay has been among the lowest in the nation, although recent changes may boost North Carolina’s rankings.

Legislators have focused much of the teacher pay increases on teachers at the beginning of their careers. There have been concerns that starting pay for teachers made it difficult to recruit people into the profession.

Cooper said the General Assembly has neglected veteran teachers in the process.

“There are teachers, if (legislators) keep the pay plan they put forward, who will get zero” in additional pay in the coming year, the governor said, holding up his hand to form a “0” for emphasis.

More tax cuts?

Cooper’s budget plan calls for an 8 percent average increase in teacher pay.

To do that, he proposes freezing the state’s corporate income tax rate, which would otherwise fall to 2.5 percent in January, at its current 3 percent. He would also reduce the benefit of a planned income tax cut for the highest earners.

The income tax rate is scheduled to drop from the current 5.499 percent to 5.25 percent in January. Cooper wants to allow that to happen for most taxpayers, but says those earning more than $200,000 a year should still pay the higher rate on what they make above that threshold.

That and keeping the corporate income tax at 3 percent would generate about $110 million in revenue the state would not get otherwise. The money would come from companies or people who have gotten large shares of tax cuts legislators have enacted since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, he said.

“It’s tax fairness for teacher pay,” Cooper said.

Berger and Moore have not said those ideas are dead on arrival. Rather, their statements indicate they consider Cooper’s proposals dead before arrival.

Both said last week before Cooper released his budget that they would not support any effort to do away with planned tax cuts. Cuts approved earlier this decade have played a big role in the state’s improved economy this decade, Moore said.

“We are not going to go back to the failed policies that the Democrats had that helped push us even further into the recession and delayed us coming out of it,” he said.

On the day Cooper unveiled his plan, a statement from Moore and Berger calling it “more of an unserious attempt to score political points in an election year than a responsible, sustainable budget” landed in reporters’ email inboxes while Cooper’s budget director was still explaining details to the media.

Mental health help for students

There are areas where legislators and the governor will probably try to push state spending in the same direction, even if they do not agree on amounts or details.

In light of security problems and difficulty filling jobs in state prisons because of low pay, both sides say there is a need to increase compensation for prison guards and other prison workers.

A House study committee on school safety formed after the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has recommended hiring more guidance counselors and other mental health professionals and law enforcement officers to work in schools. Cooper’s proposal calls for some of the same or similar steps.

Moore said last week that he expects funds for those efforts to get a priority in the legislature’s budget proposal.

That would dovetail with efforts by Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, to get the state Department of Public Instruction to study whether schools have enough counselors and other workers to deal with students’ mental health issues and whether they are properly distributed among schools.

Turner said that in some schools in his legislative district that covers western Buncombe County, many students’ needs for mental health issues go unmet.

“It almost becomes sort of a triage scenario and you have the counselors and the nurses dealing with the kids who need the most help,” he said.

At times, the workload can be too much, he said.

“School counselors are supposed to deal with everything from college preparation to homework anxiety to, ‘Oh, my father abused me last night,’ to everything in between,” Turner said.

The House passed Turner’s bill to mandate the study last year — before the Parkland shooting — but it did not move in the Senate. The shooting might encourage actual spending, not just a study, although it is difficult to gauge interest among senators.

Turner said data show mental help services to students are “very effective,” but senators may be more interested in “hardening” schools with an increased law enforcement presence or security equipment.

Berger didn’t weigh in when the subject came up in the recent conference call.