Twenty-two states now have all-Republican state government—with the governor and both houses of the legislature dominated by Republicans. In many of these states including Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgia, one can observe devotion by politicians to supply side economics, tax cuts and smaller government. With fifty million children across the states enrolled in public schools and with states the primary source of funding for public education (Localities provide another big chunk, and the federal government less than 10 percent.), many school districts across the country are feeling fiscal pain.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains simply, “Because schools rely so heavily on state aid, cuts to state funding (especially formula funding), generally force local school districts to scale back educational services, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both. When the Great Recession hit… property values fell sharply, making it hard for school districts to raise local property taxes—schools’ primary local funding source—without raising rates, which is politically challenging even in good times… As a result, local funding for schools fell after the recession took hold, worsening the even steeper fall in state funding.”
No place epitomizes this situation more than North Carolina, once known as the South’s most progressive state. In Altered State: How 5 years of Conservative Rule Have Redefined North Carolina, NC Policy Watch chronicles the collapse the state’s fiscal capacity as legislators sought “to unravel the social safety net in pursuit of their aim to shrink the government they disdain and slash taxes on corporations and the wealthy.” “(T)he ideological shift left few areas of state policy untouched. People who were already struggling have been hurt the most—low-wage workers, single mothers, people of color and immigrants… Nowhere have the cuts hit harder than in public schools, where rankings in teacher pay and per pupil funding have spiraled toward the bottom of the 50 states.” At the same time, the state of North Carolina has encouraged “new for-profit companies that run charter schools, private and religious academies that now receive taxpayer funding, and sketchy online institutions that are raking in state dollars.”
“The tax code has been radically transformed since 2010 in a way that makes adequate funding of core public services more difficult.” “Public education, a sector that accounts for about half of the state’s spending plan (higher education included) was not spared. Between fiscal 2008, the peak year of spending for K-12 education, and fiscal 2011, total state funding for public schools was cut by about $1.04 billion when adjusted for inflation…. Since then, the economy has recovered significantly, but state spending on education has not.” And the number of students enrolled has grown by 76,000 since 2008. While state funding has grown modestly in recent years, it remains “more than $100 million below what the state budget office recommended as necessary to maintain the status quo and more than $500 million less (adjusted for inflation) than what was spent on public education in 2008.”
What has been lost? Class sizes are bigger; teachers’ aides and nurses are missing in many schools; and in 2010, the state budget for new textbooks dropped from $121 million to $3 million. That cut was supposed to be temporary, but it hasn’t been restored with more than modest increases. In Franklin County Schools in the rural, eastern part of the state, a 20 year veteran, eighth grade English teacher complains there aren’t enough courses offered in her middle school to fill each student’s daily schedule. Sometimes students take gym or computer classes more than once a day to fill their schedules. In another Franklin County middle school, the principal has been forced to lay off foreign language teachers; the only option for studying a foreign language is through the state’s virtual online school.
While the teachers’ pay scale in North Carolina was raised to the national average during the 1990s, “Between 2008 and 2014, teachers saw their salaries frozen, save for a small increase offset by a rise in health insurance premiums. By 2014, the state had fallen in national rankings on teacher pay to 47th.” Starting and average salaries are now lower than in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia. “While lawmakers raised beginning teachers’ salaries in 2014 and 2015, veteran teachers were for the most part left behind, with minuscule pay bumps over the last several years….” The legislature also ended due process rights, making all teachers hired after 2013 at-will employees.
A new program offering students vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, however, was funded at $11 million last year, with expectations that it will expand to $24 million in 2016. In 2011, the state lifted the cap on new charter schools with the charter sector largely unregulated. Most notoriously, entrepreneur Baker Mitchell, Jr. continues to profit from running four charter schools that use tax dollars to lease land from the for-profit real estate venture he also owns. A 2014 investigation by ProPublica showed that Mitchell manages all operations at his charter schools via Roger Bacon Academy, a private, for-profit company owned by himself. Mitchell’s profits grow because the state is not holding charter operators accountable.
NC Policy Watch sums up the tragedy: “Once recognized across the country for its commitment to public education, North Carolina now is making headlines for how much of it is being dismantled.”