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Here is what the governor wants for education over the next two years

Yesterday, Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled his proposed budget plan for the next two years, which includes large bonuses and salary increases for teachers and other education staff, as well as a bond to address critical infrastructure needs in the public education arena.

The budget includes just over $16 billion in 2021-22 and almost $16.8 billion in 2022-23 just for education. It also includes a roughly 10% average pay increase for teachers and principals over two years, which includes regular step increases. In addition, teachers, principals, and all public school personnel would get a one-time bonus of $2,000 in May 2021.

Non-certified public school staff, such as bus drivers and teacher assistants, would get a 7.5% increase over the biennium under this plan. The budget plan would also provide money to districts to make sure non-certified employees can get at least a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Read the governor’s supporting document on salaries here.

The governor’s plan would restore master’s pay for teachers, something that Democrats and the governor have been pushing for years, though there has thus far been little interest from the Republican-led General Assembly. In 2013, lawmakers eliminated master’s pay for teachers.

The governor’s budget plan also removes funding caps and increases funding for children with disabilities and others to “provide equitable funding to districts and address differential costs of serving specific populations.”

Cooper also includes funding for “instructional support personnel,” which includes positions such as nurses, school counselors, social workers, and psychologists.

The plan includes additional funding for the district and regional support division of the state Department of Public Instruction.

Cooper’s plan includes funding for the Science of Reading, something that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt and others have been pushing as a way to help improve literacy in North Carolina.

There is additional money for the Advanced Teaching Roles program.

When it comes to early childhood education, Cooper’s plan includes funding to increase NC Pre-K reimbursement rates, expand the slots for students in the program, increase funding for salary supplements for early childhood educators, and more.

The plan also includes more money from lottery receipts to expand access to Smart Start and provides funding for more slots for child care subsidies for low-income families.

Cooper’s plan would eliminate the opportunity scholarship program, a program that gives families of low-income students money to attend the private school of their choice. Those who are already participating in the program would be able to continue but there would be no scholarships given out to new applicants starting in 2021-22.

When it comes to community colleges, Cooper’s plan includes a one-time $2,000 bonus as well as a 7.5% raise over the biennium for community college employees. System office employees would also get a raise of more than 5% over two years.

Under Cooper’s plan, community colleges across the state would also get money to stabilize budgets due to enrollment declines brought on by COVID-19. There is also funding for IT systems and cybersecurity support among community colleges.

Cooper’s proposal also includes $7.5 million for UNC System Historically Minority-Serving Institutions (HMSI) to help “improve graduation rates and student success.” Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke, NC Central University, and Winston-Salem State University would each get $1.5 million.

Cooper is also proposing a $4.7 billion bond be put on the ballot in November 2021. That bond would be used to take on the state’s many infrastructure needs, including in the public school and community college systems. It would include $2.5 billion for public schools and $500 million for the community college system. The public school system had more than $8 billion in infrastructure needs as of a few years ago, though that number is likely higher now.

Before the pandemic, the House and Senate had debated the best way to pay for infrastructure needs, with the House favoring a bond and the Senate favoring a pay-as-you-go approach. The budget stalemate between the governor and the legislature in 2019 as well as the pandemic have effectively stalled that public discussion until now.

The long-running Leandro case is also referenced both in Cooper’s budget plan as well as in supporting documents. A long-term remedial plan to help the state meet its constitutional obligation to provide students the opportunity for a sound basic education was recently turned into the court. Cooper’s budget plan acknowledged his commitment to that plan.

Many aspects of his budget proposal reflect the Leandro remedial plan, and the supporting document on the education portion of the budget says this:

“The Supreme Court of North Carolina, in its landmark Leandro v. State of North Carolina decision, affirmed the fundamental right of every child to have access to a sound basic education. The Courts also ruled that North Carolina was not meeting this constitutional requirement.

“The Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, which the State submitted to the Court on March 15, 2021, outlines the actions the State must take to meet its constitutional obligation of ensuring every student has access to a sound basic education. The Plan is based on the recommendations from Governor Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education and from the Court’s independent consultant, WestEd.

“The Governor is committed to pursuing the policy and programmatic changes outlined in the Plan and to providing the resources necessary to achieve the actions in the Plan over the next biennium and in future fiscal years. To do this, the Governor’s Recommended Budget includes $585.6 million in funding for FY 2021-22 and $1.0 billion for FY 2022-23 to improve teacher quality and support, provide additional resources for students with the greatest need, increase Local Education Agency (LEA) budgetary flexibility, ensure students are college and career ready, and strengthen early childhood education and supports.”

The governor said in a press conference yesterday that some of the state’s biggest needs — like broadband expansion — can be handled using the latest round of federal stimulus funds slated for North Carolina. He said his plan for using those federal stimulus dollars will be coming soon.

Now that the governor has released his budget plan, it is up to the two chambers of the General Assembly to come up with their own, taking into account what Cooper is proposing. The Senate will release its proposal first, followed by the House. The last time the biennium budgeting process took place was in 2019, and Cooper ended up vetoing the legislature’s budget proposal. Republicans in the General Assembly did not have the votes to override the veto, so there has been no new budget since then — only mini budget bills that addressed some of the state’s funding needs.

Statements from Republican lawmakers were released shortly after Cooper’s press conference on the budget.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said:

“While there are a number of shared priorities funded in the Governor’s budget proposal, North Carolina lawmakers will remain vigilant in our responsible financial management of the state and avoid irresponsible decisions that have harmed taxpayers in the past.

“The General Assembly will maintain budget strategies that made our state attractive to so many newcomers with a powerful economy and state government that serves citizens effectively.

“I look forward to reaching consensus on a state budget that works for all North Carolinians to avoid further vetoes by the Governor of valuable funds that taxpayers earned and communities deserve.” 

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, a Senate budget writer, said:

“We have concerns about the very high spending growth and billions in borrowing in Gov. Cooper’s proposed budget. We don’t want to return to an era of rollercoaster-style budgets with huge spikes in the boom years followed by huge cuts in the lean years. 

“Thanks to a decade of predictable, responsible budgeting, North Carolina weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and recession without cutting state services or freezing teacher pay.

“Gov. Cooper also wants to eliminate the Opportunity Scholarship program. His plan would harm working parents who desperately want their children to have an education that best prepares them for success. The program is enormously popular, especially among lower-income and non-white communities. For all the left’s talk about ‘equity,’ taking money away from low-income children so a private education is only available to the elite seems hypocritical.

“We look forward to working together to achieve an enacted budget.”

See the budget below or read the PDF here.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.