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Legislators seeking to display their commitment to public education should look to Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget for a good starting point.
Talk all they want about how much education spending’s increased over the last few years, the fact is that school needs still suffer from the ground lost amid the budget cuts from 2008 through 2014. State-funded teacher pay, for example, still trails its 2008-09 level by about $2,000 when adjusted for inflation.
Teacher pay isn’t the only, the best or even most significant, marker for support for education. Cuts force teachers to turn to online fundraising or dig into their own pockets for basic classroom supplies. There’s a shortage of school nurses, guidance counselors and psychologists. Classrooms are badly in need of technology upgrades. Too many school buildings desperately need repairs and renovations. In many growing areas, there simply aren’t enough classrooms to house students.
Responding by providing pay bonuses to teachers who get trained and carry firearms in their classrooms — as proposed by state Sen. Ralph Hise of Mitchell County and backed by key Senate leaders — is a cynical, token and dangerous gesture.
It is not a casual, expedient or partisan assessment that the General Assembly has failed to meet the state Constitution’s mandate that education is a “right” and it is “the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” It is the opinion of Superior Court Judge David Lee who now oversees the implementation of the Leandro case judgment.
“The court record is replete with evidence that the Leandro right continues to be denied to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children,” Lee said almost exactly 12 months ago.
Cooper’s budget offers a sincere response to Leandro to provide a quality education to every public school student.
His budget offers state-funded raises — with a pay scale that will provide every teacher with at least a 3 percent pay boost. The pay scale imposed by the legislature over the last few years has provided little or no pay hike for those teachers with more experience in the classroom. Cooper’s budget eliminates “salary plateaus” for experienced teachers.
Additionally, Cooper’s budget restores additional pay to those teachers who have earned master’s degrees since 2013. He also wants to eliminate the $50 penalty teachers pay on personal leave days when a substitute is needed in the classroom.
The budget also includes better school principal and assistant principal pay as well as revises the salary schedule to accommodate for school size and principal experience. Some aspects of the legislature’s current school administrator pay formula works, critics say, as a disincentive to get the best principals to work in schools that most need their skills.
Cooper has the right focus in proposing increased participation in pre-K programs and expanding Smart Start.
Fully reviving the Teaching Fellows program — that the legislature abolished and then only modestly revived — is a part of Cooper’s budget plan to reinvigorate the pipeline that encourages top college students to become teachers. That comes along with proposals to provide financial assistance to college students who find themselves struggling to pay the costs of completing their degrees.
North Carolina lags in too many areas — particularly education. The reason is obvious: The General Assembly’s first priority is cutting taxes on corporations and others who don’t need it. Then, with what’s left, meet the state’s needs. That approach shortchanges North Carolina’s future.
Cooper’s budget targets critical needs first — fulfilling obligations to the state’s students, their schools and their teachers. It is a path to help achieve potential and move North Carolina ahead.