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House Budget Proposal Falls Woefully Short of What Our Students and Educators Deserve | Opinion

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by Kris Nordstrom, NC Newsline

North Carolina’s public schools face many challenges.

  1. In November, the Supreme Court ruled that the current level of school funding is so low that it violates the constitutional rights of the state’s 1.5 million public school students.
  2. Student performance on state tests is improving but remains below pre-pandemic levels and opportunity gaps have grown.
  3. The teacher shortage has hit crisis levels with nearly 1 in 20 classrooms lacking a fully-licensed teacher.

Based on these challenges, one would expect to see a House budget proposal that:

  1. Fully funds the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan that would put North Carolina on track to finally deliver a constitutional education system by FY 27-28;
  2. Focus investments on the students and communities that have been most negatively impacted by the pandemic; and
  3. Dramatically improves educator pay and working conditions to attract and retain educators.

Sadly, this House budget does none of those things. The House budget keeps public school funding nearly flat compared to last year and instead focuses on expanding dubious school choice schemes and burying public schools in red tape.

When compared to the current school year, total state funding for public schools would increase just 0.7 percent under the House budget. In contrast, the Governor’s budget proposes an increase nearly 18 times larger than what’s proposed under the House budget:

Not surprisingly, the meager budget increases would hardly make a dent in delivering students full funding of the Leandro Plan. The Governor’s proposal fully funded the elements of the Leandro Plan with a cost estimate. The House proposes funding less than 10 percent of the Plan in FY 23-24, falling to under 7 percent in FY 24-25.

House leaders’ refusal to constitutionally fund our schools is driven purely by ideology. The House budget continues reducing taxes for wealthy North Carolinians and leaves more than $3 billion unspent on the bottom line.

Funding of the Leandro Plan is vital to addressing North Carolina’s record-high teacher shortage. The Plan would fund support staff like psychologists, nurses, counselors, and social workers at industry-recommended levels, allowing teachers to focus on teaching their students. Student supports in early learning and child nutrition will ensure more students come to school ready to learn. Improved school facilities would make teaching safer and healthier, while funding for textbooks and supplies would mean fewer teachers would have to use their own limited pay to ensure students have things like pens and paper.

Dramatically improving teacher pay would also help the teacher shortage. Unfortunately, the House plan recommends teacher pay raises that are only about half of what the Governor proposed:

When adjusted for inflation, starting teacher salaries in the House Plan would remain a whopping 13 percent below what the state offered beginning teachers in the 15-16 school year.

Rather than making research-based investments in our public schools, House Budget writers recommend dramatic expansion of failed school choice schemes.

The House budget would increase appropriations for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program by $81 million per year. Total funding would nearly double by FY 24-25. Changes in program eligibility mean that most of this funding will go to families who are already enrolled in private schools.

House budget writers continue to shovel state resources into this voucher program even though evaluations of other statewide voucher programs have produced negative impacts on student test scores on par with the negative impact of the pandemic.

The bill would extend the failed virtual charter school pilot program for an additional year and remove any enrollment caps on these low-performing schools. Since their inception, the state’s two virtual charter schools have consistently been among the worst performing schools in the state as measured by growth in test scores. Neither school has ever ranked outside the bottom 3 percent of schools:

The House budget would also permit existing brick-and-mortar charter schools to replicate this failed model. Such conversions will harm the academic outcomes of students but will improve the profit margins for charter school operators.

Finally, this budget would bury school officials in red tape. If enacted, this budget would create a whopping 22 new reporting requirements for public schools and open the door for meddlesome citizens to contest school materials. Piling these requirements onto an already overburdened system is incredibly cynical. Decisions to fund failing voucher and virtual charter programs at the expense of the Leandro Plan show that legislative leaders have no intention to use data to inform their policymaking. One can only conclude that these are intentionally cynical efforts to impede operations in public schools.

Taken together, the House Budget is not a serious proposal. It fails to address the challenges faced by our public schools. Instead, it expands programs that have negative impacts on student performance. The students of North Carolina deserve better.

This story was written by Kris Nordstrom, a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project and contributor to the North Carolina Newsline, where this story first appeared.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.