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Big education issues flow out of data streams

Consumer alert: Statistics ahead.

Three streams of data, released from disparate sources in recent days, define prospects and challenges facing public education in North Carolina and the nation. Combined, the data reports prod North Carolina to step up its game in solidifying public will behind public education.  

In its report, “Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget,” the state Department of Public Instruction offers several illuminating charts, in particular those showing trends in teacher pay and state general fund appropriations for public elementary and secondary education.

The pay chart tracks annual salary increases from 1997-98 to 2017-18 for both teachers and state employees. It helpfully points out that base state compensation for teachers went up 105.7 percent over two decades, well more than the 41.8 percent for state employees, and above the overall consumer price index of 57.5 percent. The chart does not include local supplements and one-time bonuses or flat-rate increases.

The chart depicts teacher pay as akin to the Chutes and Ladders Game: three successive pay raises of 7.5 percent annually in the late 1990s, then a 6.5 percent raise, followed by four years of modest raises below 3 percent, then a peak of 8 percent in 2006-07, with no raises at all for four Great Recession years. Only for one year recently, 2014-15, did teacher pay raises rebound to 7 percent.

The DPI report also charts general fund appropriations for public schools, rising from $5.92 billion in 2002-03 to $8.93 billion in 2017-18. Unlike the teacher pay chart, the report does not put the data in inflation-adjusted terms. But it is easy enough to run the numbers through the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator – and it shows that $5.92 billion in 2002 is equivalent to $8.3 billion today.

In effective spending, therefore, state support for public education has risen by roughly $610 million, or about 7 percent, in a decade and a half. Meanwhile, enrollment has grown by 242,000 children, an increase of 18 percent, over the same period.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau issued revised population projections, which reaffirm the message that James Johnson Jr. of the UNC Kenan Institute has delivered for several years to North Carolina: to prepare for a “silver tsunami.”

In an analysis of the Census data, demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution comments on the “staying power of the largely white baby boom’’ generation. “Already in 2018,’’ he writes, “there will be more white seniors than children…”

Among young adults and children, the United States – and North Carolina – continue to diversify in their racial and ethnic composition. A big, hanging question, upon which much depends for the state’s and nation’s future quality of life, is to what extent will older white citizens sustain support for public education with schools increasingly populated by black, Asian and Latino children.

Here is how Frey defines the challenge posed by the demographics:

“Minorities will be the source of all of the growth in the nation’s youth and working age population, most of the growth in its voters, and much of the growth in its consumers and tax base as far into the future as we can see. Hence, the more rapidly growing, largely white senior population will be increasingly dependent on their contributions to the economy and to government programs such as Medicare and Social Security. This suggests the necessity for continued investments in the nation’s diverse youth and young adults as the population continues to age.”

A ray of optimism emerges out of fresh polling data from the Morning Consult research group commissioned by David Leonhardt, a columnist for The New York Times. The poll findings, which came from an online survey of 1,172 parents with children under 18, show widespread understanding of the need to pursue education beyond high school.

Fully three out of four parents want their children to graduate from a four-year college or university. And more than half support their children going to a community or technical college. Support for university- and college-going crosses lines of ethnicity, gender, income, politics and ideology.

More than 60 percent of Republican parents agree with the statement that universities are “too liberal’’ – contrasted with 30 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents. And yet, there is no statistical difference among Republicans, Democrats and independents in the share of parents who see a strong value in higher education for their children.

And a high demand for higher education requires a state to invest both financial and civic resources to the elementary, middle and high schools necessary to produce college-ready young people for the middle decades of the 21st Century.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.