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A top-10 state entangled in a thicket

The General Assembly has entangled itself in an uncalled-for thicket. Legislators are haggling among themselves and with local education officials over rules and ratios that determine each public school’s allocation of teachers.

In last year’s budget, the legislature mandated a class-size reduction in kindergarten through third grade. Some school administrators say the formula for funding teachers would result in a cutback in art, music, and physical education instructors. Parents and citizens ask, why does North Carolina have to make this choice?

Smaller classes in early grades allow teachers to give students more individual attention. The jazz band, the chorale, the drama club, and intramural soccer add to producing healthy, well-rounded young people. Can North Carolina have an adequate supply of teachers to provide both of these educational “goods”?

The answer requires seeing beyond the rules-and-ratios thicket. In a state in which nearly 57 percent of the state’s General Fund goes to education — K-12, community colleges and universities — it is impossible to delink education policy from tax policy and the state’s fiscal health.

The state absorbed severe blows from the two recessions between 2000 and 2009. These were national downturns, not confined to North Carolina.

Legally, state government must keep its budget balanced, even when a recession saps its revenue. At a time when the state had a Democratic governor and legislative majority, the Great Recession led to steep spending reductions across state agencies that included, for a while, no pay increases for teachers and state employees. Since 2011, Republicans have had a legislative majority and have sought to stimulate the economy by reining in state government spending and cutting income tax rates for individuals and corporations.

North Carolina has fewer classroom teachers than it had before the Great Recession, pointed out Philip Price, the former chief financial officer of the Department of Public Instruction. Writing for WRAL.com, Price, who retired after 35 years in the education department, noted enrollment has grown since the 2008-09 fiscal year from 1.4 million to 1.5 million students. Despite increased numbers, “We have less teacher assistant funding, fewer guidance counselors, social workers, nurses and less funding for instructional supplies and textbooks,” Price wrote. 

The legislature is considering another large tax-cut package, as well as a proposal to embed a limit on the income tax rate in the state constitution. Legislative tax-cut proponents argue that lower rates will propel economic growth that produces more revenue. This week, the Legislative Fiscal Research Division projected that a Senate-passed tax-cut measure would lead to revenue shortfalls after the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Without this revenue, what would happen to the state’s schools?  The tax system has a direct and powerful effect on whether North Carolina can sustain educational institutions that give the state comparative advantages. It matters how the revenue is spent too.

Will the state have the capacity to respond to CEOs who say expanding early childhood education is a key to narrowing the “skills gap’’? Will we attract more high-quality teachers and principals to the state’s schools? How will we propel more young people through high school and into post-secondary skills training or colleges and universities?

North Carolina ought to be strong enough, in its economic and civic life, to respond robustly to these questions and to its gaps between urban and rural, among rich, middle-class and poor, between people with higher education and those with no more than a high school diploma. North Carolina has doubled in population — from 5 million to 10 million people — since 1970 and now ranks 9th among the states. North Carolina has the power to act like the top-10 state it has become.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.