Quick Takes on the N.C. House’s Proposed 2019–21 Budget

From James Barrett, candidate for N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction

I’ve reviewed the proposed budget for the next biennium released on April 26 by the N.C. House of Representatives.  Overall, this budget is wholly inadequate and does more harm than good for our students, schools, and communities in returning North Carolina to the leadership position we once held in public education.

Some specifics:

  1. A classroom supply increase of $15 million is something, but $9 per student does not address the >50% reduction (from $68 to $30) in supply spending we’ve seen since the Great Recession. 
  2. Children’s brain research clearly is not driving General Assembly decisions.  It is simply not appropriate for Pre-K students to be enrolled in a “virtual” school (that is, “learning” by computers only).  They will not develop the strong pathways in the brain that are required to deeply understand language and that are best developed through direct interaction with an adult human being.  $1 million for this “pilot” is a waste of taxpayer money.
  3. The General Assembly’s own task force to look at moving from our allocation formulas of position allotments to a lump sum grant of money to school districts has only met once.  They quickly determined that trying to create a better system of funding allocation is impossible when there are simply not enough funds to go around.  This budget proposal includes $1 million to now have the State Board of Education work some magic to spread money around better.  Finance experts have said there are better models than our allocation model, but without acknowledging that the state is woefully under-funding our schools ($3000 per pupil below national averages), achieving equity is an impossible task.  Farming it out to the State Board of Education won’t solve our problems here.
  4. $10 million in pork-barrel funding grants is not an effective way to improve education in our state.  I’m sure it will help somebody get reelected because they bring home the bacon, but this money could be better used to solve our funding challenges across the state.
  5. Instead of listening to teachers and passing budgets which meet teacher needs, the General Assembly has added legal requirements in the budget which will restrict future gatherings such as last year’s teacher march on Raleigh and the upcoming May 1 march. The language used may not specify that they’re trying to restrict 1st Amendment rights to petition our government, but that’s clearly the intent and effect.
  6. Progress is proposed on School Performance Grades moving to an equal weighting for growth (how much students learn during a given year) and proficiency (where students are toward meeting objectives).  This is an improvement over previous grades that were heavily focused on proficiency, which is more highly correlated with the wealth of students than what schools are actually doing. An improvement—but not nearly good enough yet. See here for my proposal on a simpler, fairer, more transparent, good-for-kids-and-teachers way.
  7. The budget includes provisions to support the $400 the superintendent proposed giving to teachers—by taking it away from districts—that they would have to spend on supplies through an external vendor.  This program does not solve any known problem in how supply money is handled today, is not efficient in using the minimal funds that are available from the state (see A, above), and does not recognize that teachers of various disciplines have varying needs for supplies (think about a civics teacher’s supplies and a science lab teacher’s needs).

There are no huge cuts in this budget, but neither is there any effort to fill all the existing holes created when the economy was recovering from the recession but this General Assembly chose to prioritize tax cuts for corporations over restoring funding to our schools.  In general, it doesn’t make sense to me to have complicated policy issues addressed in budget documents (hard to get agreement on details when there’s a pressing need simply to get a budget passed), and the policy changes in this proposal are not going in a positive direction for our students.  I hope the Senate proposal is similarly constrained when it comes to cuts, and then legislators can get down to the business of negotiating with Governor Cooper on a budget that will meet the needs of all North Carolinians and not do harm.

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