Gov. Roy Cooper submitted his recommended state budget for 2017-19 at the beginning of March. The $23.5 billion budget represents his first opportunity to outline his priorities for education and other policy areas. Let’s examine a few of the numbers Capitol watchers will be talking about.
5.1 percent: Gov. Cooper’s recommended state budget includes a hefty spending increase of 5.1 percent over 2016-17. The budget includes $1.3 billion in new spending, $783 million of which is for education (i.e., K-12, community colleges and UNC System). It’s been a long time since North Carolina has approved a budget that’s increased spending by 5 percent or more from the previous year.
$271 million: Cooper knows his base, and his first budget rewards many of his strongest supporters—educators. The governor’s budget provides 5 percent raises for teachers in each of the next two years at an annual cost of $271 million. Also included is a $150 stipend for teachers to defray costs spent on classroom supplies. The salary increases may face a tough road. They come on top of three consecutive years of average teacher raises, which when combined total 13.8 percent.
6.5 percent: Cooper’s budget also provides generous raises of 6.5 percent to principals and assistant principals, at a cost of $20 million. The legislature currently has a joint committee studying the issue of principal and administrator pay. Cooper’s proposal raises salaries but does nothing to resolve the many problems created by the salary schedule, the biggest of which is the failure to link pay to job performance. Good teaching must be linked to financial incentives. Cooper’s teacher salary plan fails to address those concerns. It amounts to nothing but throwing money – and a lot of it – at a big problem.
4,700: The governor’s budget calls for an additional $15 million to fund an ambitious increase of 4,700 slots for the NC Pre-K program, which aims to improve school readiness for 4-year-olds. While pre-K programs can have an immediate impact on some students, there are still concerns about long-term impacts. Cooper’s plan represents a significant expansion of a program whose value remains uncertain.
$10,000: The governor’s budget calls for the creation of the NC Best and Brightest forgivable loan program. The program provides forgivable loans of up to $10,000 per year for four years to students who agree to teach in the public schools and for three years to teachers who agree to teach in low-performing or low-wealth schools. I’m not entirely sold that there is a teacher shortage. Are there shortages of teachers? Yes, but I’m more apt to call it a maldistribution of teachers, not an overall shortage. The money might be better spent by targeting funding on areas with chronic shortages, such as math and science. Furthermore, how do we know that new teachers won’t continue to teach in more attractive areas? There is nothing wrong with teachers living in nicer areas. There is no reason, however, to increase the supply of teachers to do so. Plenty are already waiting to do so. This proposal is in effect the same as Teaching Fellows II. Is there any reason to expect the Forgivable Loan Program won’t contain the same problems that led to the justified demise of Teaching Fellows?
$100,000: The governor’s budget adds $100,000 to the budget to provide charter school “oversight” for the State Board of Education and Charter School Advisory Board. This provision amounts to nothing less than a “shot across the bow” for school choice advocates. The Office of Charter Schools and Charter School Advisory Board already have oversight responsibilities in this area. The proposal promises another layer of bureaucracy and will only further expose the deep fissures that already exist between the public schools and charter schools in North Carolina.
$49 million: The governor’s budget proposes to repurpose nearly $50 million in NC Education Lottery money to pay for classroom support staff, new textbooks and digital learning materials, and new programs. The changes continue a trend of lottery money being moved around and outside the classroom, its intended destination.
0: The governor’s budget provides $4.7 million to the Scholarship Granting Fund Reserve, approximately half of the amount recommended in last year’s budget bill. It also allows for no new scholarships. The budget language regarding Opportunity Scholarships is also interesting. It states it “will honor existing commitments to students with scholarships already awarded for the 2017-18 academic year and to fund the remaining years of scholarships for those students. Anticipates no new scholarships.” That says all you need to know: Cooper strongly opposes Opportunity Scholarships. Republican majorities in both houses of the General Assembly have supported Opportunity Scholarships and can be expected to continue to do so. How these differences get resolved will likely be one of the more interesting developments of the coming year.
Community colleges and higher ed
2.0 GPA: The governor’s budget proposes NC Getting Ready for Opportunities in the Workplace (NC GROW) Scholarships. NC GROW is a new program that would cover the full costs of tuition and mandatory fees for high school graduates with a 2.0 or higher GPA at state community colleges. The scholarship is considered a “last dollar” scholarship in that it will meet financial need after state and federal financial aid has been determined. The budget provides $19 million, all from lottery receipts, to fund the program.
This program is problematic for two reasons. First, most “free college” tuition programs mistakenly assume cost to be the largest factor in college enrollment or completion. That’s not the case with community college students. More often than not a change in life circumstances – such as a death in the family, an illness, or a job loss – impacts completion. Money may be helpful, but it probably will not directly impact the life-altering event. Second, if the state pays the “last dollar” after state and federal financial aid has been determined, why wouldn’t this program be nothing more than a massive subsidy for middle- and high-income families who want to save money on their child’s education?