North Carolina ranks last or near last in many measures of public education spending. The new two-year budget could make these problems worse, educators say.
Last year, North Carolina teachers spent about $500 of their own money on supplies for their classrooms. With most schools in session 10 months out of the year, that’s $50 a month.
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Last week, the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly passed a budget that gives teachers a raise of about $80 a month, on average, after taxes.
What, teachers and Democrats asked mockingly last week, will they do with all that extra money?
North Carolina ranks 47th in teacher pay. The raises most teachers will get over the next two years do not keep pace with recent rates of inflation, which means the cost of those school supplies are increasing at a faster rate than teacher salaries.
It should be no shock, then, teachers say, that North Carolina’s public schools face huge teacher shortages.
What About Inflation?
When most students returned to the classroom last month, there were more than 2,800 K-12 teacher vacancies across the state’s 100-plus school districts. The problem is even worse in rural counties.
Republican leaders said that the budget, which came three months late and several weeks after the start of the school year, was intended to address these shortages.
It gives a bigger boost to salaries for new teachers, for example, than for veteran educators, an effort to draw more graduates into the profession. But retention is as much a part of the problem as recruiting.
The purchasing power of North Carolina teachers’ salaries has fallen steadily over the last several years, while the number of vacancies have increased.
“Adjusted for inflation, starting salaries have fallen 14% over the past seven years,” a 2022 analysis by NC Newsline found.
“Our state budget is not just a mathematical document of figures and numbers. It is a representation of our values in this state,” Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), said at a rally in June.
“We all share a common goal: improving the outcomes and achievement of every single student in our state and ensuring that our students have a qualified educator in every classroom,” she said.
As the budget negotiations stretched through all of July and August, schools prepared to reopen without knowing how much money they’d have to operate with.
All public schools in Alamance County delayed the start of the school year for two weeks because of widespread mold infestations in schools where roof damage and other issues have persisted for years, amid inadequate funding.
“We know time and time again our General Assembly continues to fail to meet the moment and the critical need to fully fund our public schools,” Kelly said.
Ignoring Court Orders
Adequately funding the public school system is perhaps a state budget’s primary responsibility, but it’s a responsibility the legislature has fallen far short of meeting for decades, according to reams of state data, rulings from state courts, and accounts from the schools themselves.
These decades of underfunding were so pronounced that several courts, including the state Supreme Court last year, ordered the General Assembly to spend more money on public schools. Judges even devised “the Leandro” plan, an equitable-funding roadmap, to show them how.
Republicans have ignored those court orders and this budget doesn’t come close to providing Leandro-level funding.
A Boost to Private Schools
North Carolina is also ranked 47th in per-student public school spending and dead last in school funding effort, a measure of how much a state spends versus how much it could spend.
The new budget, which passed mostly along party lines, nearly triples the amount of money taken from the public school system and given to private schools. It also expands a private school voucher program, which previously was limited to low-income families, so that even wealthy parents can use tax-payer money to cover the cost of their kids’ tuition at the private schools they already attend.
By 2032, North Carolina will spend more than five times the amount it spent on the vouchers last year, increasing from $94.8 million in the 2022-23 school year to more than $520.5 million.
Many of the private schools that would benefit from the voucher expansion can legally deny admissions to LGBTQ students, students whose families practice the “wrong” religion, or students who have learning disabilities. Public schools, meanwhile, must accept, accommodate, and educate all North Carolina students.
“These vouchers take our scarce resources from our public schools, where the majority of our working families send their children to learn and grow,” Kelly said.
If lawmakers gave as much for teacher raises as they did for vouchers, Democratic Rep. Laura Budd said last week, they could double teacher salaries.
Then maybe teachers could better afford to stock their classrooms.
The cost of pencils rose 25% in 2022. Folders and binders jumped 17%. Scissors climbed 8% and paper towels are 15% more expensive.
Under the budget, educators on average will get about a 4% raise in the first year and 3% in the second.