This week, House Republicans released their full biennial budget proposal. Budget writers included parts of the budget that were not unveiled last week, such as teacher and state employee pay plans.
Overall, under the House plan, the average teacher salary increase would be approximately 3.3 percent for the coming school year and at least 9.0 percent over the biennium. The cost of those increases for taxpayers would be around $181 million and over $456 million, respectively.
Because of the structure of the state salary schedule, actual teacher salary increases would vary by years of experience. In general, the House plan favors mid- to late-career teachers, that is, those who have between 15 and 20 years of experience. Some early career teachers would receive raises of around 1.5 percent for the 2017-18 school year, while others would see as much as a 6.7 percent bump in base salary. Moreover, the House would award $5,000 bonuses to teachers who have at least 27 years of experience, so long as they commit to teaching in North Carolina public schools for the next 2 to 3 years.
To their credit, the House budget places a strong emphasis on career and technical education. This includes a sixth- and seventh-grade career and technical education pilot program, increases to state career and technical education staff, a coding and mobile application grant program, funding to transfer the Apprenticeship NC program to the N.C. Community College System, and several community college initiatives to enhance workforce education and training efforts. Given the demand for workers in the skilled trades, these efforts are welcomed.
House budget writers proposed a $10 million funding increase for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In 2016, Republican lawmakers announced a 10-year, $100 million commitment to the program. This is the first year of an effort to ensure that low-income families have the means to provide their children an education that better meets their needs. Unlike the Senate budget, the House budget does not include seed money to convert the state’s Disabilities Grant Program to an education savings account. Moreover, members of the House included an ill-conceived plan to evaluate the Opportunity Scholarship Program, disregarding accountability measures already prescribed by state law.
By far, the most exciting part of the House budget is the plan to create the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. While most folks are indifferent to the creation of a task force to study education funding, the prospect of North Carolina abandoning its confusing allotment system for a student-based funding formula is the first step in ensuring that parents and other taxpayers know how many state dollars are allocated to each of our public schools. And attaching the funding to the student may accelerate the expansion of public and private school choice by making the child, not the institution or its employees, the focus of the state’s education funding system.
The House budget continues to support Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson in his legal dispute with the N.C. State Board of Education by providing funds for legal fees and support staff. The Senate budget also included funding to support Superintendent Johnson, as well as significant cuts to both State Board and N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) staff. The House budget eliminates a handful of vacant positions at DPI but leaves the agency comparatively unscathed.
The House will complete its budget votes this week, and both chambers will appoint members to the conference committee to negotiate a final budget. Given that the Senate and House budgets have several common elements, such as the expansion of Opportunity Scholarships and support for State Superintendent Johnson, their primary task will be to formulate a teacher compensation plan that satisfies their respective caucuses. The Senate budget outlined a 9.5 percent raise for teachers over the next two years, compared to an estimated 12.3 percent raise pitched by House budget writers. Thus, their first task will be to identify a spending target for teacher salary increases over the biennium. There were also structural differences between the two plans. As such, members of the conference committee will have to formulate a revised salary schedule and determine which targeted bonuses best meet the personnel needs of our public schools.
My advice to them would be to ignore the critics who complain, as they always do, that proposed increases in education spending are insufficient and assemble a budget that is consistent with conservative principles – maximizing parental choice, transparency, accountability, and taxpayers’ return on investment.