Bottom line: State needs to do more for public schools
It’s a fundamental question and voters will be the ultimate arbiters: is North Carolina spending adequately on education? The short answer is no, and I’ll show you why I believe that.
With Haywood County officials pondering the likely closing of Central Elementary School due to funding shortfalls, the question of the state’s commitment to education has been thrust into the spotlight. The back-and-forth has included emails and press releases from both Haywood school officials and Rep. Michelle Presnell, R-Burnsville, with our legislator stooping so far as to calling local officials “shameful” and “disingenuous.” Not quite the behavior you’d expect from a state representative, but hey, an uninformed electorate gets its just deserts.
The gist of the debate goes something like this, and both local school officials and Presnell are right: Haywood officials say the state’s investment in public schools — excluding salaries and benefits, which eat up most of the increases — is down; Rep. Presnell says in her two terms, overall investment in the public schools has increased, and she is right.
Most people get bored drilling down deeply into budget numbers, but it’s important that voters take a few minutes to look at some simple budgetary truths.
Number one among those is that Haywood school officials are right that salaries and benefits have eaten up the majority of the increase going to public education. This isn’t because teachers are paid too much or have gotten raises, it’s just a reality of incremental salary increases and the higher cost of benefits.. Personnel costs have gone up, but at the same time more is being demanded of teachers as assistants and other costs were cut.
Here are the numbers: from 2008-09 to 2014-15, the state increased funding to public schools by $60,214,282 (from $8.70 billion to $8.76 billion). During that same time period, salary and benefits for public school employees increased by $1.3 billion. Do the math and that means there is $1.2 billion less for everything else associated with education, and those are just real dollars that don’t take into account any inflation or the increase of 43,700 students in the state’s schools.
So, yes, the GOP-led General Assembly has returned some the money to the public schools that was cut — originally by the Democrat-led General Assembly — due to the recession. However, the increase has not kept up with teacher salary increases and more students, so schools don’t have more money.
But here’s a much more telling number, and it is more relevant in terms of the commitment by state leaders to public schools. In 1999-2000, the state’s leaders were committing 41 percent of the general fund to public schools. In 2014-2015, the legislature committed 37.8 percent of the general fund to education. The lesson: the state is committing a lower percentage of its dollars to education.
It’s no secret that government is seen as a necessary evil to many. I just don’t think public schools should be lumped into the equation when the anti-government crowd starts grandstanding, but it seems more and more that those in the GOP want to bash public schools, teachers, administrators and local school board members. Here’s how Rep. Presnell said it: “In the end, it will be the children of Haywood County who suffer from mismanagement,” apparently referring to Haywood school board members and administrators.
We should be talking about how to find more money to invest in public schools, not bashing local leaders who are trying to do more with less.