What happened to North Carolina over the last decade? North Carolina used to be the state highlighted for quality education in the South, but then it flipped all-Red. The legislature became all-Republican in 2010, and in 2012, voters elected Pat McCrory, a conservative businessman as Governor—creating an all-Red trifecta state lacking checks and balances until McCrory was defeated in 2016.
In a report last December for the North Carolina Justice Center, Kris Nordstrom describes the destruction of public education that followed the state’s political transformation: “North Carolina was once viewed as the shining light for progressive education policy in the South. State leaders—often with the support of the business community—were able to develop bipartisan support for public schools, and implement popular, effective programs… The state made great strides to professionalizing the teaching force, bringing the state’s average teacher salary nearly up to the national average…. In addition, North Carolina focused on developing and retaining its teaching force by investing in teacher scholarship programs and mentoring programs for beginning teachers… Unfortunately, over the past seven years, North Carolina has lost its reputation for educational excellence. Since the Republican takeover of the General Assembly following the 2010 election, the state has become more infamous for bitter partisanship and divisiveness, as reflected in education policies. Lawmakers have passed a number of controversial, partisan measures, rapidly expanding school choice, cutting school resources, and eliminating job protections for teachers… One commonality of nearly all of the initiatives… is that they were folded into omnibus budget bills, rather than moved through a deliberative committee process.”
In a fine story in Wednesday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein describes what the collapse of financial support for public schools in North Carolina has meant for one poor, rural school in eastern North Carolina’s Greene County and for third-grade teacher, Keshia Speight: “Everyone at West Greene knows Mrs. Speight is special. She won teacher of the year in just her second year on the job. She’s 45 and earns about $37,000 a year. That’s more than $21,000 less than the national average and $12,000 less than the state average. She has $25,000 of student debt. The worksheets (used by her students)… have often been printed by Mrs. Speight on the printer she bought for the classroom using her own money. The cartridges are always running out, and Mrs. Speight buys those, too, at $30 a pop. She buys pencils and educational games and other supplies—more than she can keep track of. In some years, she said, she spends as much as $1,000 of her own money.”
The shortage of money has cut deeper than classroom supply budgets: “There used to be a full-time library assistant here to help students select books and check them out. The assistant now works half time. The district once paid for teachers to participate in National Board Certification, a prestigious professional development program, but no longer has the money to do so. An after-school tutoring program recently ended when the grant that was paying for it ran out.”
The school district has invested in computers and tablets over the years, and Mrs. Speight believes technology is important, as many of her students entirely lack access to the internet at home. But Superintendent Patrick Miller is torn by impossible choices—teachers or technology: “Principals often tell Patrick Miller… that they’d rather hire educators than purchase new technology. There isn’t always money to do both. North Carolina schools get most of their money from the state. They have less of it now, adjusted for inflation than they did before the recession, because of tax cuts and rising costs for health care and pensions. Wealthy areas have been able to make up for the lost funds through property taxes. Orange County, home to Chapel Hill, supplements state school money with an additional $4,852 per student. Greene County supplements it with just $736 per student.”
Goldstein’s fine article on Greene County Schools’ funding shortage followed an earlier NY Times analysis, Robert Gebeloff’s background piece at The Upshot, on the state of school funding across the states: “(W)hile the protests are spreading this year, the underlying conflict between public school employees and policymakers has roots in decisions made during the last recession, when states and local districts short of cash curtailed education spending for the first time in decades. This had a pronounced effect on school staffing, with layoffs hitting many states. Districts cut support staff as well as regular classroom teachers. In North Carolina, the number of teachers is down 5 percent since peaking in 2009, while the number of teaching assistants is 28 percent lower. And teacher pay stagnated nonetheless… For a system that had experienced nothing but spending growth for a quarter century, the past few years have been a major shock. K-12 spending per pupil rose 26 out of 29 years before 2010, only to tumble three consecutive years at the beginning of this decade.”
Gebeloff adds: “Then came a one-two punch to the growth in education spending: The recession worsened financial problems already widespread in many states, and voters began electing conservative governors and legislatures that promised to rein in budget woes with spending cuts. Almost every state reduced education spending during the recession. But as the national economy recovered, education spending did not return to the historical pattern of steady growth across all states. By 2016, more than half of states controlled by Democrats had restored education spending per pupil to 2009 levels, but the same was true in only 5 of 22 states controlled by Republicans. Some red states have seen slower growth in state and local revenues… The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities… notes that seven states with school funding controversies—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma—cut taxes in recent years… North Carolina teachers once ranked 19th in the nation in pay, but now rank 37th.”
A final note: If you question why public education spending rose consistently over the years prior to the Great Recession, please consult Richard Rothstein’s research for the Economic Policy Institute, research showing that 38 percent of added funding over these years was devoted to services for severely handicapped children who began to be served in the public schools after 1975, with the passage by Congress of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.