Governor's education budget released

The bottom line is that the governor’s budget would increase K-12 education spending by 2.8 percent or $235 million more than the 2014-15 budget.
The governor’s budget would direct a massive amount of taxpayer money to school-based employees. This includes raising beginning teacher pay to $35,000 per year, moving all teachers to the next tier on the state salary schedule, and retaining the one-time bonus granted to experienced teachers last year. These three line items would direct over $111 million to teachers each year for the next two years. State agency teachers and school-based administrators would also receive salary increases.
The North Carolina Education Endowment Fund would receive a $15 million boost from this budget. The fund, which was the brainchild of Lt. Governor Dan Forest, was set up last year to serve as a permanent source of funds for a teacher performance pay plan. This is a long-overdue investment in a system that rewards the state’s best teachers.
Another positive step is the addition of more than $70 million over the next two years for instructional materials and equipment. School districts would have the flexibility to spend these funds according to the needs and demands of their districts. Districts that choose to invest in technology would be able to do so, while others may choose to restock their textbook supply.
The single largest K-12 increase is the $100 million allocation to fund school enrollment growth in FY 2015-16 and over $207 million for enrollment increases in FY 2016-17. Much of this would be used to pay for hundreds of new teaching positions.
In the past, funding for enrollment growth was automatically incorporated into the budget. Due to the change approved by the N.C. General Assembly last year, budget writers will now be required to include enrollment growth as an expansion item. While this move increases transparency, some argue that future legislatures will not be compelled to fund enrollment growth in its entirety. It is clear, however, that the governor’s budget does not shortchange the projected increase in student enrollment.
In fact, some may say that it overestimates the cost of enrollment growth. Last month, the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division estimated that K-12 enrollment growth would require an additional $70 million next year and $140 million the following year. I suspect that legislators will be more likely to accept this estimate than the one developed by the governor’s staff, because it frees up funding for other budget priorities. Estimating public school enrollment, regardless of who is doing the calculations, is more of an art than a science.
There are disappointments, however. The failure to increase the budget for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives private school scholarships to low-income children, is troubling. According to Civitas Institute polls of likely North Carolina voters, vouchers continue to enjoy support across the state. More importantly, low-income children finally have opportunities previously only available to their wealthy peers, that is, to attend private schools that better meet their social, moral, and intellectual needs. Surely scholarships for low-income children are a better use of taxpayer money than maintaining teacher assistant funding, which would receive an additional $64 million a year under the governor’s plan.
Despite a budget that increases K-12 education spending significantly, the governor’s political opponents will continue to claim that the state is underfunding public schools. This is the instinctive reaction of those who believe that the state can never spend enough taxpayer money on public education. Other naysayers will object to specific decisions, such as cutting the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) budget by 10 percent or failing to give veteran teachers a raise comparable to beginning teachers. While the legislature will consider multiple options for raising teacher pay, I suspect that the DPI cut is here to stay.
In fact, there are multiple points of agreement between Governor McCrory and Republican legislators. For example, legislators agree that the starting teacher base salary should be $35,000 a year. They also recognize the need to increase funding for instructional materials and equipment, particularly digital learning. When the House and Senate begin development of their respective budget recommendations, the main K-12 education issues on the table will be the funding level for projected enrollment increases and teacher assistant funding.
To borrow a phrase from the NFL Draft, the House is on the clock.
Facts and Stats
Major expansion items in the Governor’s Budget Recommendations for FY 2015-17
Description FY 2015-16 FY 2016-17
Public Education Increase Beginning Teacher Pay to $35,000 41,846,123 41,846,123
Teacher and School Building Administrators Movement on State Salary Schedule 68,366,167 64,871,243
Public Schools Enrollment 100,236,542 207,195,864
One-time Bonuses to Teachers and School Building Administrators 5,601,520 5,601,520
Maintain Teacher Assistants at Current Year Funding 64,039,628 64,039,628
Digital Access and Classroom Resources 42,400,000 47,000,000
North Carolina Education Endowment 5,000,000 10,000,000
Public Education Subtotal 327,489,980 440,554,379
Projected K-12 education funding through FY 2016-17

Acronym of the Week
OSBM — Office of State Budget and Management
Quote of the Week
“Since taking office, through this budget and including the last biennium, we have increased our investment in K-12 teacher salaries by more than $1 billion.”
– Governor’s Budget Recommendations for FY 2015-17, p. x.