(Students arrive for first day of school at YE Smith Elementary in Durham, NC. Photo via East Durham Children’s Initiative)
As an organization deeply committed to ensuring all children in our state receive a high-quality education, we’re concerned about our state’s priorities. Yesterday, state legislative leaders unveiled a budget deal that further pursues tax cuts at the expense of strengthening public education. This is a misguided strategy that does not reflect the priorities of North Carolinians who overwhelmingly call for further investments in our public schools. Local public schools are the best way to prepare our state’s children for success in college, career, and life and our state leaders are falling short on investing in what matters most.
Public education is perhaps the single best economic investment NC can make, serving as an economic engine to make the state more economically competitive, attract more businesses, and spur entrepreneurship. So why are we not putting in more effort? In 2012, only 2.4% of total taxable resources were spent on public education — the second lowest percentage in the country. Over the last few decades, NC has sharply reduced public education’s share of the state budget, from 52.5% in 1970 to 38.2% this year, if this budget is passed.
The economy is improving nationwide and most states have used this opportunity to increase their funding for public schools this year. Yet despite steady growth in GDP here in NC, we’re drastically falling behind the rest of the country in public school funding and effort. Despite a 5% increase in per-pupil spending with this proposed budget, the state will spend $500 less on each child this school year (adjusted for inflation) than in 2008, before the recession hit.
Tax cuts imposed over the last few years, which will be exacerbated by the proposed budget, are devastating for our kids. In the last few years, thousands of teachers and teaching assistants have been laid off and millions of dollars have been cut from the budget for textbooks and instructional supplies. Each year, we’ve seen it get harder for our local schools to do their job, and for teachers to stay in their job. We are pleased to see much-needed increases for textbooks and starting teacher base pay, but despite these adjustments, NC is still below pre-recession spending levels per student on textbooks and our teachers are still some of the most underpaid in the country.
This trend makes us concerned about NC’s future. The recent NC Supreme Court decision on vouchers and other recent legislative actions are creating chaos. State leaders call for “reform,” but they’re creating an unaccountable mess where taxpayer money now goes to for-profit charter school operators and private schools. All indications point to these actions being a part of a calculated, deliberate attempt to replace our local public schools with a free-market system of educating our kids. And in a free-market system, there are winners and losers. Why are we trying to emulate this for our children? None of North Carolina’s children deserve to be on a losing team. None of our children deserve to have their state leaders give up on them.
Through our grantmaking, we support many nonprofit organizations that work to ensure all children have an equal opportunity at a bright future and universal access to a high-quality education. We support groups advocating for stronger investment, training and supporting school teachers and leaders, and ensuring children in low-wealth communities aren’t left behind. We see the data that shows NC citizens overwhelmingly value public schools and want our state leaders to do more to support students. We hear from teachers and school leaders that are frustrated with being asked to do more with less. NC students can’t afford merely adequate public education and our state is better than its current position on the bottom of nearly every education-related ranking. We must call on our state leaders to invest more in our local public schools, ensuring a complete education for all children in NC.