By most measures, this year’s education budget passed by the General Assembly is a step forward.
With North Carolina teacher salaries ranked 37th in the nation and sixth in the Southeast, nearly 20,000 teachers marched in Raleigh on the opening day of the legislative session.
North Carolina’s Higher Education Works Foundation notes that legislators “bumped average teacher raises for 2018-19 from the 6.2 percent they approved last year to 6.5 percent. Though legislators did not match the 8 percent average raise proposed by Gov. Roy Cooper, the 6.5 percent increase should continue to improve North Carolina’s standing in national rankings of teacher pay. The state’s teachers last received average raises of at least 6.5 percent in 2014 (7 percent) and 2006 (8 percent).”
Cooper also criticized the budget for “continuing to drop per-pupil expenditures.” Cooper’s budget would have removed tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 to fund the bigger increase for teachers.
The budget was good to higher education and helped increase the UNC system and community college budgets, which UNC system president Margaret Spellings called the “strongest in a decade.”
The state’s university and community college systems are easily Top 5 in the U.S. It’s one of the main reasons, both currently and historically, that North Carolina is a leader in growth areas like high-tech, medical research and banking.
The new budget added money for university and community college teacher raises, plus key faculty recruitment and retention. Community colleges received nearly $15 million for short-term workforce training, which is also an important economic development tool. This money could particularly help Southeastern Community College with nimble job-training programs tailored to specific companies or industries.
N.C. Promise will help nearby UNC-Pembroke attract students who wish to pursue four-year degrees. In-state tuition will be only $500 per semester. UNC-Pembroke will also receive $6 million for a new business administration building.
There are other promising efforts on the education front. Wednesday, the House voted 114-0 to require school systems to assign students who score high on end-of-course or end-of-grade tests to high-level math courses. Often, these students, many of them poor or minorities, have been left behind even though they scored well.
There are some troubling bills, such as one that will allow a handful of Mecklenburg municipalities with lots of money to fund their own charter schools. That would never be possible here, another example of the haves and have-nots.
While there’s overall progress in this education budget, the legislature in its next budget must give more attention to rural North Carolina schools. Urban growth areas have left rural North Carolina far behind. Education is a key component of moving rural areas forward, and this hasn’t been adequately addressed.
To do this, there must be more differentiation to send needed funding and resources to struggling rural school districts.