My Turn, Phil Kirk: Has legislature actually been stingy with education funding?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 3, 2022

By Phil Kirk

A recent letter accusing the Republican-led General Assembly of being stingy for education with funding left me wondering where the letter writer had been the past decade of Republican rule.

Then, when I got to the end and saw the author was a person I had known for the past 40 years, I understood. During that time I never heard her make a positive comment about any Republican and her letters to the Post in the past several years have been even more partisan and bitter.

The letter has prompted me to write about the tremendous and historic support of public education by the legislature. First, the “stingy” legislature has increased funding for education every year since they became the majority party.  North Carolina’s new budget increases funding for K-12 schools by $1.5 billion! The UNC System received more money than it requested which is highly unusual. Community colleges received record increases and several presidents commented that the increased funding was the highest in their memory. Stingy? I think not!

The increases in teacher and principal salaries have been largely ignored by the media. When Republican Pat McCrory assumed the governorship, teacher salaries ranked 47th in the country. We improved to 29th several years ago, but slipped back to 33rd because the budget was vetoed. The current legislature raised teacher salaries by 6.7% and provided a $2,800 bonus to each teacher. So, our goal of reaching the national average is likely to improve. In addition, many local school systems gave large bonuses; $100 million for supplemental pay in poorer counties was also appropriated for the first time in history. Signing bonuses of up to $5,000 have been approved for school psychologists as well as signing bonuses for teachers in poor counties. Because of the added pressures of teaching during the pandemic, these raises were certainly justified.

Principal salaries were 50th in the country when the Republicans became the majority party in the legislature. With an average raise of $20,000 per year two or three years ago, North Carolina is now second in the Southeast in principal salaries. Raises were also given to support staff in the schools as they are an important part of the education experience.  Additional employees in many of the areas were authorized.

Record investments in science, technology, engineering and math programs in K-12, community colleges, and the UNC system were approved. Funding for need-based scholarships for students in our 36 private colleges and universities was increased. More than $2 billion was appropriated for capital needs in the UNC system with hundreds of millions going to historically Black colleges and universities.

Without a doubt, the General Assembly’s major programmatic achievement in education has been a commitment to dramatically improve reading in the early grades. Millions of dollars have been funded for implementing the Science of Reading Program in every school. The UNC System and North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities are involved with teaching future teachers how to more effectively teach reading. More than half of our third-graders are not reading at grade level. Vast improvement is needed, and the legislature agrees.

There is dramatic news in funding for the UNC System. The N.C. Promise program allows North Carolina students to enroll in four institutions for $500 a semester! While this gives these public universities a huge advantage over our private colleges, it will undoubtedly increase the number of college graduates which is the major goal of the myFutureNC initiative.

Tuition at our community colleges remains at a low rate because of funding from the legislature, federal grants and local support. Also a largely unreported accomplishment is the sixth year of not increasing tuition for UNC students for their four years — again, this is historic. Previously, tuition was increased every year.

Another myth being perpetuated is that funding that should go to traditional public schools is being diverted to charter schools, private schools, religious schools and even home schools. First, charter schools are public schools under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education. Second, funds for opportunity scholarships are not taken from the public schools; funding comes from additional revenues in the state budget. Also, it is important to note the public overwhelmingly supports parental choice and traditional schools no longer have a monopoly on educational opportunity. Traditional schools will always be, I believe, the first choice for most parents and competition improves these schools.

To say that our K-12 schools are being starved because of a lack of funding is an absolute untruth.

So you decide, has the legislature been “stingy” with education?  Your response should be fact-based, not partisan rhetoric!

Kirk, a native of Rowan County and former teacher, previously served as chairman of the State Board of Education.