Most of the talk about the General Assembly session that begins next month is about giving teachers a raise, though it is far from clear how many teachers will see an increase and how large the raise will be.
Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed increasing salaries for starting teachers first and says raises for veteran teachers will depend on state revenue collections for the year. And the revenue news this week was not good.
The legislature’s Fiscal Research Division says personal income tax collections are more than $200 million below projected levels, primarily because of the tax cuts passed last year. Some of the tax changes designed to help make up the difference won’t take effect until taxpayers file their 2014 returns next year.
And that doesn’t include the $438 million loss in revenue already built into the budget because of the tax cuts for the wealthy and out of state corporations that state lawmakers passed last session.
Sen. Jerry Tillman says he supports a raise for teachers but says the General Assembly “can’t do it if they don’t have the money,” forgetting apparently that he and his colleagues voted for the tax cuts that are making the raises almost impossible to pay for. (And by the way rank-and-file state employees deserve a raise too, something that has been left out of many of the public discussions about the upcoming session).
Gov. McCrory and legislative leaders are clearly scrambling to respond to public outrage about teacher salaries and deep cuts made to public school funding in the last few years. McCrory has so far refused to endorse a sensible and popular proposal by former Gov. Jim Hunt to raise teacher pay to the national average in four years. North Carolina currently ranks 46th in teacher salaries.
And there’s something else McCrory and his allies running the House and Senate are missing too. People are not only upset about the absurdly low salaries of the men and women teaching their children, they are angry about the overall cuts to public schools.
Teachers, all teachers, deserve to be paid more. But they also deserve to have the support they need to do their jobs. The budget passed last year included a total of $15 per student for textbooks. The average textbook, hard copy or digital, costs between $35 and $85. Many schools simply don’t have enough textbooks to go around.
Last year’s budget also wiped out funding for 3,800 teacher assistants, making life much more difficult for teachers in the early grades. Funding for supplies was cut too and a small tax deduction for teachers who bought supplies out of their pockets was repealed.
Funding for teaching positions was reduced, leading to larger class sizes in many districts. The list of cuts is a long one and the state now spends $500 million less on public schools than it spent in 2007-2008 when you adjust for inflation.
Tillman called the recent revenue numbers frustrating. He’s almost right. What is actually frustrating is that lawmakers slashed state revenues to give millionaires a $12,000 a year tax cut and now can’t find the money to pay all teachers what they deserve and make sure students have the textbooks they need to learn.
It’s often said that the state budget is simply a list of priorities. That’s true and it’s clear that teachers and schools are not at the top of list of the folks currently running North Carolina.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of the N.C. Policy Watch.