RALEIGH (January 4, 2024) – The 2024 elections will be important to America – and to the future of American democracy.
But they also will be vitally important to the future of North Carolina and its children.
From governor to state legislators to local school boards, the state’s voters will make critical choices up and down the ballot that will determine the future of public education – and largely the future of the state.
First and foremost, despite gerrymandered districts and a so-called “balance” of power increasingly tilted toward the General Assembly, we need to elect legislators who better support public education, from pre-school through grad school.
The General Assembly’s 2023 session offered a few bright spots, but state legislators largely enacted laws that disparaged public education and further empowered the legislature.
Once a model for public education in the South, North Carolina struggles these days in the bottom half of many national education metrics. In a U.S. economy that competes across the globe, the state’s No. 1 ranking for business won’t last if we don’t step up our investments in public education – investments in our future workforce.
That’s up to you, voters.
YET WITH NORTH CAROLINA ranked 34th in average K-12 teacher pay and a shameful 46th in starting teacher pay, legislators adopted a budget in September that gave public-school teachers an average raise of just 7% over two years – not nearly enough to catch up with inflation over the previous two years.
The raises were skewed to help teachers at the starting end of the pay scale. But the new starting pay of which legislators boasted was still $4,000 less than legislators in Alabama approved a year earlier.
But even that prompted resentment among teachers with 15 or more years of experience, who received raises of just 3.6%, again over two years. That’s less than 2% a year for a profession that’s already paid poorly.
We need to treat the people who teach our kids like the professionals they are. That’s just one reason we need changes at the General Assembly and its weak support for public education.
House Speaker Tim Moore says he would like to see additional raises for teachers in the General Assembly’s so-called election-year “short” session when it convenes in April.1
That would be a start. But only a start.
THE BIGGEST THREAT to K-12 public education is a plan in the state budget to increase funding for vouchers to attend private schools more than fivefold by 2032-33, to $520 million a year.
The state’s “Opportunity Scholarships” were initially pitched to offer choice for students at low-income schools. But in the new budget, legislators removed any cap on the household income of students who receive vouchers. Even a student who already attends private school without government assistance will now qualify to receive state tax dollars.
The plan will undoubtedly siphon funds that could otherwise go to public education – funds that could help the state comply with the plan that parties in the long-running Leandro lawsuit agreed to last year, but the state NC Supreme Court appears poised to overturn.2
Public schools, meanwhile, do not discriminate and accept all students. Is legislative leaders’ “vision” that public education is only for the poor?
At a time when 77% of North Carolina’s children attend traditional public schools,3 does this expansion of public funds for private schools make sense as legislators continue to underfund public education?
Any funds allocated for vouchers that go unspent for two years will be returned to the state’s General Fund.4 That’s good, but it doesn’t guarantee the funds will go to public schools. State legislators should nevertheless scale back their blatant diversion of public funds to private schools.
WITH SIGNIFICANT INDUSTRIAL expansions planned from Lincoln County to Davidson, Randolph, Chatham, Durham and Brunswick counties – especially in the emerging electric-vehicle industry5 – the state also needs to punch up its support for the community colleges that will train workers for those plants.
It’s a pleasant problem to have.
But salaries for community-college instructors, in particular, have ranked poorly in recent years. In the new budget, legislators targeted additional raises for nursing instructors to help address the state’s ongoing nursing shortage.
They should do the same for instructors in other fields.
FINALLY, AFTER THE NEEDLESS departure of Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, we expect an honest, legitimate national search for a new chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill – not some go-through-the-motions exercise with a predetermined outcome.
Despite his inexperience in academic administration, Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts deserves a chance to oversee the University – and to do so without more political meddling from the campus Board of Trustees, the UNC System Board of Governors or state legislators.
The nation’s first public university and one recognized globally as a leading research university deserves an honest-to-God search for the best candidate to manage the University with courage and independence.
4 https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2023/Bills/House/PDF/H259v7.pdf, p. 192.