(The Center Square) – Opposition from liberal lawmakers to the budget, led by the governor, are loudest when it comes to education.
With votes Thursday and Friday, the last by the Senate on Friday morning, the state budget was sent to the governor with a number of decisions – from school choice to the long-litigated Leandro. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper says he’ll take the option of allowing House Bill 259 to become law without his signature after 10 days rather than issuing a veto.
“Make no mistake about it, the state of education in North Carolina is improving because of parental school choice under the leadership of House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger,” Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in a prepared statement. “Expanding access to North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, while reinvesting any realized savings from the program back into public education is a win-win for all students.”
The majority of Democrats disagreed on the chamber floors the last two days. Senate passage of the $60.7 billion spending plan was 27-16; it was 70-40 in the House. There wasn’t a “no” vote from a Republican in either chamber.
No senators from the minority party were in favor. Democratic Reps. Cecil Brockman of Guilford County, Carla Cunningham of Mecklenburg County, Garland Pierce of Scotland County, Michael Wray of Northampton, and Shelly Willingham of Edgecombe County voted “aye” in the House.
The budget does not fund most of the court-ordered Leandro comprehensive remedial plan that remains tied up in the courts. Significant education issues it does include are:
• Appropriation of $17.3 billion for education in the current fiscal year, a 6.1% increase, and $17.9 billion in fiscal year 2024-25, a 9.5% increase. Education gets more than half of each year’s budget.
• Money tied to students, in what is known as opportunity scholarships. It is available for all K-12 students to attend the school of their choice, including private schools. The budget increases accountability through required student testing for schools with opportunity scholarship students.
• Expansion of the NC Teaching Fellows program, both in terms of broader eligibility and two added teacher preparation programs.
• Teachers will get significant raises, though not the larger amount proposed by Cooper. It’ll be 7% over the two years. The starting salary floor is $39,000. Bus drivers’ pay is up 9%. The budget does not include salary supplements for teachers with a master’s degree that was included in the House proposal, but increases local pay supplements by $30 million, funding for students studying to become educators, and bonus pay for advanced teachers.
• Provisions to improve parental leave for school employees; offers teacher licensure flexibility; expands virtual charter schools; covers the cost of reduced-price school meals for students; provides for early high school graduation; spends $35 million on school safety; and dedicates funding for school psychologists, counselors, nurses and social workers.
Public school activists at Public Schools First NC wrote in a website post the “teacher raises fall far short of what’s needed to revive the shrinking teacher pipeline,” a sentiment echoed by several Democratic lawmakers during debate.
Democrats say Republicans are attempting to dismantle public education – in North Carolina, this includes charter schools – by devoting $100 million each year to the opportunity scholarship program.
“School vouchers are funding schools that can choose which students to serve,” Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, D-Guilford, said on the House floor. “They can choose not to serve students with disabilities. They can choose not to serve students whose families look different.”
Fellow Guilford Democrat, Sen. Gladys Robinson, pointed to $4.1 billion that could flow to private schools by 2033, “taking that money away from 1.4 million public school children.”
Robinson suggested the program could result in resegregating schools by race.
Republicans say the program gives parents another option to educate their children at a time when many are becoming increasingly frustrated with traditional public schools following closures during the pandemic and concerns about promoting liberal issues.
Several school choice proponents hailed the budget as a big step forward for school choice.
Corey A. DeAngelis, senior fellow at American Federation for Children and national school choice advocate, highlighted Cooper’s comments on Friday in a post to X, the site formally known as Twitter.
“NC will now fund students, not systems,” he posted. “NC is now the 10th state to pass universal school choice. It’s the 1st to do so without a GOP trifecta.”
Cooper earlier this summer, in an unofficial manner because there was no executive order, issued a “State of Emergency for Public Education.” He said the “General Assembly is considering extreme legislation that would cripple our public education system.”
Analysis shows both funding and test scores are rising.
Cooper’s appointments form a majority on the state Board of Education, and that panel recently short-circuited the new Charter School Review Board by instituting policy to withhold or reduce funding for charter schools the new review board sends its way. The Legislature, via the state budget, reversed that authority back to the review board.