Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski struck a popular theme when he spoke to the General Assembly on Tuesday.
“We need to be the leader in education,” he told a joint session of legislators. “Please, please, always have an open heart and an open mind and never put a ceiling on what is most important, and that is educating our youngsters.”
Coach K wasn’t in the building to lobby on the House budget proposal. But his visit – to accept honors for his team’s NCAA championship – came amid lengthy budget talks in which education spending is perhaps the hottest topic.
Legislators were quick to highlight Krzyzewski’s words and even UNC-Chapel Hill alumni, such as House Speaker Tim Moore, took pictures with the Blue Devil coach.
With the recession in the rear-view mirror, both Republicans and Democrats in the House are eager to direct the state’s growing revenues to education – and they’ll likely echo Krzyzewski’s remarks as the budget debates continue this week.
Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and the chairman of the education budget committee, pointed to the contrast with other recent spending plans.
“The first time since I’ve been here, I get to talk about what we’re adding instead of what we’re cutting,” Horn said of the education budget.
With revenue projections showing 6 percent growth for the coming fiscal year, the House proposal would increase K-12 school spending by $269 million – or about 3.3 percent – adding new funds for textbooks and teacher pay.
Teachers would see starting salaries rise from $33,000 to $35,000. All teachers – along with most state employees – would get 2 percent raises, and veteran teachers at the top of the pay scale would see a $1,000 bonus from last year added to their permanent base salary.
The senior House budget writer, Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, noted the vocal gripes of veteran teachers after last year’s pay plan.
“More senior teachers felt like they did not participate as much in the increase, because we were trying to raise the younger, newer teachers to be able to address some serious retention issues,” Dollar said.
But the N.C. Association of Educators says the proposed raises don’t go far enough to bring North Carolina in line with teacher pay offered in other states. The group’s president, Rodney Ellis, said the House plan “will not make a dent in North Carolina’s average teacher pay rankings.”
“One of the most immediate impacts we can have on student success is to recruit the best teachers and to keep them in the classroom by making a long-term commitment to paying them as professionals, and the starting point should be at least the national average,” Ellis said in a statement.
In addition to the pay changes, the House budget would more than double funding for textbooks and “digital resources” – recognizing that many school materials today aren’t on ink and paper – from $24.3 million to $72.6 million in the next fiscal year.
“We are greatly enhancing textbook funding,” Horn said.
House Democratic Leader Larry Hall has been downplaying the extra funding. “Republicans made devastating cuts to education, so slight increases in some areas, but not completely restoring or surpassing our levels prior to their cuts, is unacceptable,” he said.
Hall’s also does not believe enough is accomplished in a House plan to start a scholarship loan program for beginning teachers willing to work in schools or subjects deemed “hard to staff.” That program would get $3.2 million over two years.
“The $3.2 million allotted over two years for teacher recruitment is a far cry from the Teaching Fellows Program which (Republicans) ended,” he said, referring to a program that offered college scholarships in exchange for a four-year teaching commitment.
In addition to the new scholarship program, the budget would direct $5 million to begin a pilot program called “Elevating Educators,” which would provide salary supplements for “advanced teaching roles” in which veteran educators earn extra pay for training and curriculum development roles.
But a big chunk of the spending increase is a required $100.2 million to handle school enrollment growth, with 17,000 more students coming in the next school year.
Truckers blast gas tax plan
Truckers say they would be hit unfairly by House Republican budget proposals to increase motor vehicle fees and set the fuel tax for diesel 3 cents higher than the gasoline tax.
“It’s just shifting a lot of the burden back on the trucking industry,” said Crystal Collins, president of the N.C. Trucking Association, which represents 350 trucking firms. “We already pay more than a fourth of the total taxes and user fees that are paid by the motoring public. We already pay our fair share.”
North Carolina taxes gas and diesel fuel at the same rate, now 36 cents a gallon. The House budget (House Bill 97) would reduce the gas tax to 33 cents in January but keep the diesel rate unchanged, adding North Carolina to the ranks of states that tax the two fuels at different rates.
Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican who helped draft the transportation budget proposals, said the higher diesel tax was just one way to come up with needed revenues for transportation.
Torbett also defended a proposal to increase fees collected by the Division of Motor Vehicles by 50 percent, pushing total DMV fee collections to more than $900 million a year. DMV fees haven’t changed in 10 years, he said.
He said that represents a rate “just above inflation” for that 10-year period. But Consumer Price Index data show much lower inflation over the past decade: 20.2 percent.
Staff writer Bruce Siceloff