This Election Day should be a day of reckoning for North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders who have shirked their responsibility and broken a long state tradition of strong support for public schools.
Instead of investing in the state’s children, instead of improving education as a way for poor children to escape poverty and all children to achieve goals, the Republican-led General Assembly has chosen to reduce state taxes, mostly to the benefit of the wealthy and big corporations. Billions of dollars in tax revenue that could have lifted North Carolina’s schools to new heights instead has been diverted into tax cuts that have produced no tangible results.
Republican lawmakers are acutely aware of their culpability in this choice, but instead of defending it or apologizing for it, they’re denying it. Even worse, they’re claiming credit for increasing spending on public education. This is duplicity joined with sophistry, and it should stir the smoldering anger over the neglect of public schools into outrage.
A conservative issues group is running TV ads saying that since various Republican lawmakers took office teacher pay has jumped and North Carolina teachers now make an average of $50,000 a year. It’s true that the Republicans, feeling the heat of an election year, finally gave teachers decent pay raises over the past two sessions, but that came after no raise for four out of five years. The boost in teacher pay since Republicans took control in 2011 has been largely blunted by inflation. And with higher deductibles for benefits, some teachers are taking home less.
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Counties boost pay
As the state held back on teacher raises, some counties increased their local supplements to boost teacher pay. The TV ads’ claim of a $50,000 average includes the extra money provided by local governments. That aspect of the ads annoys Susan Evans, a Wake County school board member and a Democrat who is running for the state Senate against incumbent Republican Tamara Barringer.
$6,237 NC per-pupil funding in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2008-09:
$5,615 Per-pupil funding in 2016-17
Evans says of the $50,000 claim, “Not only is it disingenuous, it is offensive because many of our counties including Wake have had to turn to counties to adequately fund our staff because the state wasn’t doing so.” In 2015, Wake approved an extra $15.75 million to boost pay.
In a Point of View published in these pages Saturday, Robert Luebke of the Civitas Institute, a conservative Raleigh group, says it’s false that Republicans have not supported public education. He claims, “Under GOP leadership, K-12 appropriations have actually increased in five of the last six budgets.”
Sure, appropriations have increased. So has inflation, the student population and the cost of employee benefits. But have the resources for education improved? No. Indeed, the ratio of teachers to students is worse, funds for textbooks and supplies are scarce, the ranks of teaching assistants have been depleted and more charter schools are diverting funds from traditional public schools.
In terms of per-pupil funding, the most telling measure of a government’s commitment to public education, North Carolina remains near the bottom of national rankings. Indeed, after six years of Republican control and an improving economy, per-pupil funding in inflation-adjusted dollars has not returned to its pre-recession level. In 2008-09, it was $6,237. Today, it is $5,616
Can’t cut and raise
If Republican lawmakers think public school budgets are rife with waste and heavy with administrative workers, they should say that and defend tightening budgets as squeezing out the unnecessary expenses. They would be wrong, but at least they would be truthful. But doing it and saying they’re not is both wrong and dishonest.
Are Republican lawmakers serious about improving North Carolina’s public schools, or are they buying time, ducking their way through elections, hoping their alternatives – charter schools, virtual charters, voucher programs – take root and the “government schools” fade into a permanently ill-funded, second-class system that counties can bolster if they want?
If that’s their vision, let them run on it. Otherwise, Republicans will have to spend more on a long-term plan to improve teacher pay and better fund the operation and staffing of North Carolina’s public schools.
By the numbers
Percentage increase in average instructional staff salaries from 2004-05 to 2014-15:
US: 21 percent
NC: 10.2 percent
Change in inflation adjusted dollars:
NC: - 10.2
Average salary of public school teachers 2014-15
NC’s rank: 42nd
Source: National Education Association