The Public School Forum has been closely analyzing this week’s release and imminent passage of the General Assembly’s 2018-19 budget proposal. We bring to you our take: The Good, The Needs Improvement, and The Ugly.

THE GOOD

Teacher pay. An overall average increase of 6.5% continues important new investments in teacher pay that are desperately needed. Also included is a $70/month salary increase for veteran teachers and instructional support personnel (with 25+ years of experience), but an elimination of the 2017 one-time veteran teacher bonuses. We’re pleased to see veteran teachers get some increase, but they’ve largely been left out and left behind in recent years.

Principal pay. This budget invests $12 million into principal salaries—an additional investment over last year’s big boost to principals, who have been in desperate need of salary increases. This year’s investment provides an average increase of 6.9% in 2018-19 and results in a 13.1% average increase since 2016-17. In another positive move, the budget also extends a hold harmless provision for one more year, which would prevent some principals—in particularveterans—from seeing big pay cuts under the new plan. The budget does not adequately address elements of the overall plan that many school leaders say are disincentives for top leaders to take the helm at low-performing schools.

Principal preparation and advanced teacher roles. Teachers say they want more pathways to advancing their careers while staying in the classroom, and we are pleased that this budget provides additional funding to increase the length of the Advanced Teaching Roles pilot program from 3 to 8 years. The budget also invests more in principal preparation and training. It’s clear that school leaders play a critical role in the success of teachers and schools, so we’re encouraged that the budget provides additional funding for administrative and technical assistance related to the UNC Teacher and Principal Preparation Laboratory School Program, which continues investments in North Carolina’s great principal preparation programs.

School finance reform task force extended. The budget extends the work of the General Assembly’s joint school finance reform task force through October 2019, with a final report due then rather than October 2018 (the current deadline). We welcome this change because we believe the monumental feat of reexamining the system of how our state distributes funds to our public schools–and potentially overhauling it–deserves a very careful and thorough study with ample time to determine how any new model appropriately addresses the critical issues of adequacy and equity of funding.

THE NEEDS IMPROVEMENT

Classroom resources. Just two weeks ago, 20,000 educators and public school supporters marched in Raleigh and their message was clear: teachers do not have the classroom resources necessary to do their jobs and ensure our students can learn. But with this year’s budget, it appears lawmakers didn’t hear their message well enough: funding for textbooks and digital resources remains at the same per pupil allocation level as that of 2017-18: $73.9 million. This amount is still well below pre-recession levels and students continue to report that they are working with textbooks that are in some cases decades old. To get back to pre-recession levels of funding, the state should fund at $77.16 per student; now the state is only funding at $47.86. This year’s budget, when compared to pre-recession funding, also underfunds basic classroom supplies, teacher assistants, professional development, and many more critical classroom line items. For our students to succeed in career and in life, we need to ensure that teachers have the resources necessary to make that happen.

School safety. In the wake of Parkland, Florida and many other school shootings, lawmakers have said they want to do more to keep our children safe at school, and the elements of this year’s budget proposal like investing in counselors and school mental health resources are on the mark. But this year’s budget proposal offers only $35 million related to school safety (compare this to the Governor’s $130 million proposal), and much of this pot comprises one-time-only funds to hire school nurses and other mental health professionals, putting districts in a difficult position when it comes to recruiting and retaining for the long term. $35 million is not nearly enough to get to where we need to be to ensure our children are safe and well supported when they are spending their days inside of our school buildings.

School construction. This year the budget adds over $100 million in Education Lottery dollars toward needs-based school construction grants. Last year, that allotment was only $30 million, so budget writers’ intent of using more lottery dollars toward school construction is a step in the right direction. However, the NC Department of Public Instruction conducted its comprehensive study of school facilities, and we need $8.1 billion over the next few years to meet the school construction needs. It is disappointing that this budget does not include the Public School Building Bond Act (HB 866/SB 542) that would dedicate $1.9 billion in a statewide bond referendum toward school construction, renovation and repair. Perhaps that school bond bill will pass later in this legislative session.

Early childhood education. According to the NC Early Childhood Foundation, budget writers have shifted $50 million of new federal funding intended to help more working families afford high-quality child care to use for other purposes. This budget continues a disappointing trend of using federal dollars to supplant state investment in early childhood education. $50 million in federal funds for NC Pre-K should have been a huge boost for North Carolina’s children and families by adding the $50 million on top of state investment to significantly expand the number of pre-K slots, not diverting state funds for other purposes.

THE UGLY

Municipal charter schools bill and local tax provision. This week the Senate gave tentative approval to HB 514 with a final vote scheduled for Monday, which would allow the Mecklenburg County towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius to form municipal charter schools for their residents, a brand new hybrid form of a charter school. The Public School Forum believes this legislation sets a bad precedent that will drive further inequities, exacerbate re-segregation, and potentially put city taxpayers at risk from new liabilities and unknown costs to run their own school system. The budget included a provision that would allow cities to use property tax revenue to fund local schools that serve their residents, which further enables HB 514. Beyond municipal charter schools, this could create serious problems whereby wealthier locales will inevitably be better positioned to fund their schools, again exacerbating inequities and shifting the burden of financing schools onto locals rather than the state, which has a constitutional obligation to fund our schools. If you thought that local school boards and local county commissioners fight over school budgets, just wait until your towns and cities weigh in on the debate, too. That’s what this bill promises.

Virtual charter schools. A provision in the state budget extends the state’s virtual charter school pilot from 4 years to 8 years (until 2022-2023). As a result, two for-profit online schools with a track record of abysmal student outcomes will continue to have exclusive operating rights in North Carolina for four more years. Options for virtual schooling are an important part of the educational ecosystem, but we need to ensure that our tax dollars are being spent on the best choices available.

Continued lack of transparency and accountability for school choice programs. This year’s budget expands our state’s school voucher program to approximately $55 million, a $10 million (or 22%) increase over last year. It also adds an additional $3 million to the disability voucher program. With continued expansion of the state’s voucher programs without accompanying accountability and transparency mechanisms, we are discouraged see that our state’s taxpaying citizens will continue to be without access to solid information about what type of nonpublic education their dollars are actually buying. The House’s budget proposal last year had a provision to enhance accountability for vouchers; however, it did not succeed last year and it’s not in this year’s budget either. It’s time to enact better accountability and transparency mechanisms for our proliferating school choice programs, ranging from robust evaluation processes to better laws around financial accounting of public funds spent.

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