by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
We teach our children to submit their work complete and on time. This week, Gov. Cooper released what he called a “streamlined budget much smaller than any kind of regular budget” four months late. A good teacher would hand it back to the student immediately. Lawmakers should take a similar approach.
Cooper’s daughter attended a private school in Raleigh, but his budget would prohibit thousands of families with modest incomes from having the same opportunity. Cooper’s plan would eliminate $85 million in funding for the continued expansion of North Carolina’s popular private school scholarship program for low-income children.
Gutting the Opportunity Scholarship Program would destroy a critical lifeline for low-income parents who find that their assigned district school does not meet the needs of their children. His budget would allow current families to stay in the program, perhaps trusting that the courts will eventually side with those who hate religious schools and want to see the program terminated.
Speaking of opportunity, many families have found superior educational opportunities in private and home schools. Yet districts complain that the loss of enrollment will force them to make budget cuts.
In most industries, fewer customers mean fewer dollars. Public education is not like most industries, however, because politicians like Cooper protect them from competition. One way to do that is to eliminate options (see above). The other way is to throw money at public schools regardless of the number of students who leave.
The so-called “hold harmless” approach championed by Cooper, the State Board of Education, and public school advocacy organizations is based partly on the assumption that schools should not be penalized for families who leave due to dissatisfaction with school reopening plans.
I sympathize with those who complain that Cooper’s mid-July school reopening announcement restricted the reopening options available to public schools and limited the amount of time that school leaders had to implement them. Cooper put North Carolina’s district and charter schools in a tough spot. Yet school boards did themselves no favors by limiting the options further, such as selecting a full-time remote learning option for the initial weeks of the school year.
The other assumption is that large numbers of private, charter, and home school students will enroll in district schools long after initial funding is set. Students in schools of choice tend to be more satisfied than students in districts, so I think it’s unlikely that that would occur. But even if lawmakers believe it will, they could set up a reserve fund that district, charter, and private schools with extraordinary enrollment growth can access late this year or early next year.
It wouldn’t be a Roy Cooper budget without a wink and a nod to public school and higher education personnel, although I’m somewhat surprised that he failed to include a minimum wage increase. Cooper’s budget would throw $360 million in one-time dollars for across-the-board teacher and principal bonuses ($2,000), noncertified public school employees ($1,000), and UNC System and community college employees ($1,500).
Last year, Cooper rebuffed an offer by Republican lawmakers to award teachers a far-superior 4.9% raise and a $1,000 bonus. After Cooper’s shutdown of the North Carolina economy depleted tax revenues, lawmakers could do little more than fund a small bonus and an experienced-based or “step” increase this year.
Leandro v. North Carolina is also a centerpiece of the governor’s budget recommendations. Retired Superior Court Judge Howard “Howdy” Manning, who oversaw state compliance with the Leandro for nearly two decades, recently remarked that “money can’t buy you quality.” But Cooper’s budget would try to do just that.
Cooper proposed that the state spend $394.7 million in one-time money for a variety of programs recommended last year by a California-based consulting firm. While much of that money would be used for the personnel bonuses described above, Cooper would also spend another $16.5 million to assist schools in developing school-based mental health policy, $19.2 million for a one-time bonus to teachers and staff of private childcare programs, $24 million to increase Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Funding, and millions more for a handful of other initiatives.
In the end, Cooper’s “streamlined budget much smaller than any kind of regular budget” is a late and incomplete submission that warrants a failing grade. It’s not his first. It may be his last.