Patchwork education budgets won’t get the job done

Jul. 06, 2014 @ 11:26 AM

In the 2014 legislative session, the General Assembly has shown little interest in restoring public education funding that could repair the damage inflicted by years of underfunding. Having sunk to 48th in per-pupil funding and 46th in teacher pay, we are forced to evaluate the latest budget proposals on a “new” standard. Instead of hoping for the best, we look to avoid the worst. The governor and the legislative majority have proposed a variety of budgets that will only exacerbate the education funding crisis and fail to lift the state’s current low rankings.  

Until recently, there were three separate budget proposals. Now, the Governor and the House have proposed yet another education spending bill. On the surface, this new legislation seems promising, at least in terms of teacher raises. And yet, it cannot make up for six years without significant raises -- nor does it alter the new system of short-term teacher contracts taking the place of career status.
Unfortunately, this moment is indicative of the larger systemic problem facing public education in our state. There is no long-term vision for our public education system. There is no long-term investment.
This haphazard, patchwork approach to funding public education clearly manifests in other areas of the budget. Here are some worth noting:
-- Teacher assistants: In their proposed budgets, both the governor and the House have refused to increase funding for teacher assistants in grades K-3. The Senate’s proposal goes a step further and proposes cutting $233 million for teacher assistants, specifically in second and third grade.
Why are these cuts problematic for students? North Carolina’s Excellent Public Schools Act includes the “Read to Achieve” program, which mandates that third-grade students must be reading at grade level in order to go to the next grade. Without teacher assistants, in the younger grades, students have less access to individual attention and help that can improve literacy for struggling students. Lawmakers cannot expect students to excel in reading when they continue to take essential educators out of the classroom.
-- Pre-K initiatives: All three budgets propose using a one-time federal block grant to boost funding pre-K initiatives in the state. Unfortunately, the temporary increases are just that, temporary.

Pre-K initiatives in the state are intended to level the playing field for economically and racially disadvantaged students who may not have the same access to pre-K education, thereby beginning school significantly behind their more affluent peers. Historically, those who fought for equal access to public education did so because they knew it provided hope for social mobility and citizenship. Yet, the proposed budgets demonstrate our current lawmakers’ disregard for the importance of equal access in education. They propose shifting the weight of funding to local budgets, which may not have adequate revenue to provide essential pre-K services. In essence, these sections of the budgets demonstrate that our lawmakers do not see value in investing in all of our children.
-- Textbook funding: Both the House and Senate budgets would maintain the current textbook expenditure, approximately $15/student. While the governor’s budget increases funding, textbook appropriation would still only be about $30/student -- far below the average cost of textbooks, which is $35-85/student. The inability to stock classrooms with relevant and important textbooks significantly affects students’ preparation for later schooling and, ultimately, careers. Last year, Raleigh’s News & Observer reported on the crisis in Halifax County Schools and the record low funding for schools and resources. According to the report, top students from the local high schools who went on to prestigious institutions, like Howard University, struggled to keep up with college material -- not for lack of intelligence but for lack of preparation.

In sum, little about the competing budget proposals offers cause for optimism about the future of North Carolina’s public schools. The approach to funding public education is indicative of a larger, injurious attitude toward the system. It demonstrates a carelessness and disregard for the pivotal role of education in moving the state forward economically and otherwise. Education is not a one-time investment. It must be continuous. It must be equal. And, finally, it must be a priority.

Micah Khater is a Southern Education Foundation SELI Fellow at Public Schools First NC and a Caldwell Fellow in the University Honors Program at N.C. State University.