The people of North Carolina would like to commend their General Assembly for approving a forward-thinking budget that puts their state’s educators on sound, fair footing.
They’d like to do so, but that’s not what happened up in Raleigh. By all accounts, there appears to be little sound or fair about the budget cobbled together late last week, especially as it regards education. And it looks no further into the future than three months — the time between now and Election Day.
The original budgetary goals pursued by the out-of-control, GOP-dominated legislature went in a great many egregious directions, but two stood out:
The first was a set of massive tax cuts, especially for favored constituents — accompanied by painful spending reductions certain to cause pain and deprivation to individuals depending on a wide range of social programs.
The other most notable and objectionable aspect of earlier budget versions was the meat-ax approach they took to public school personnel.
Legislators Running Scared
Some of those affected made a convincing argument that the educational cuts went well beyond simple budget-balancing efforts and were clearly motivated, at least on the part of some of those pushing them, by an underlying element of hostility toward the whole concept of public education — referred to disparagingly in some conservative circles as “government education.”
Among their most hurtful and controversial aspects, earlier budget proposals sought to jerk the rug out from under teacher tenure and did nothing to raise North Carolina’s dismally low teacher pay levels, or raised them only at the expense of eliminating 4,500 teacher assistant positions.
Teachers rose up in near-revolt over the meager pay and other provisions. And this, in turn, had a great many legislators running scared that they might suffer negative election consequences. Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis was especially concerned that his effort to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in November might take a hit. She did, after all, ease ahead of him in a recent poll.
Smoke and Mirrors
Against that background, the overriding goal of the $21 billion state budget approved Saturday (more than a month late) was to give the state’s teachers a pay raise, with a compromise figure of 7 percent settled on. The good news: That was accomplished. The bad news: It was done largely through budgetary smoke and mirrors — or, to mix metaphors, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Teacher assistant jobs would still be cut, this time to the tune of 3,300. And teachers working toward master’s degrees wouldn’t get extra pay, shooting down one motivation for self-betterment.
That “7 percent” figure also apparently doesn’t hold water. The actual raise is closer to 5.5 percent, with the rest achieved through an accounting maneuver of adding in “longevity pay” that teachers already receive separately.
And the origins of the funds needed to cover that difference are also open to question. Part of the money comes from one-time sources that won’t be there in future years, and much of the rest is obtained by reaching deeper into lottery proceeds and budget reserves.
No wonder few teachers are in a mood to bring apples to their elected representatives. Most seem more in a mood to smack their wrists with rulers.