News & Observer Editorial, 3/7/16

Republican leaders in the General Assembly say they’re doing the will of the people, but when it comes to public schools they clearly are not.

A High Point University poll released last week found that two-thirds of state residents think public education in North Carolina is heading in the wrong direction. That unease was especially focused on the legislature’s willingness to let per-pupil funding slide and to let teacher assistants go. The National Education Association ranks North Carolina 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending, and cuts in state aid to local schools have eliminated thousands of teacher assistant positions.

Seventy percent of the respondents said reducing per-pupil spending would have a negative impact on public schools. Eighty-one percent said having fewer teacher assistants in classrooms would have a negative impact.

Lawmakers moved last session to increase starting pay for new teachers from as low as $33,000 to a minimum of $35,000, and teachers got a $750 bonus, but overall teacher pay still ranks 42nd nationally. Asked whether North Carolina teachers are paid too little, 83 percent of respondents said yes. And almost three-quarters said they would be willing to pay more in taxes if North Carolina teachers could be paid at the national average within five years. 

Don Martin, professor in educational leadership at HPU, said of the poll results, “North Carolina residents are concerned about the direction of education in North Carolina. When 73 percent would be willing to pay more taxes to see that teacher pay reaches the national average in five years, decision-makers in Raleigh should listen.”

No doubt lawmakers are listening. They’ve heard from teachers and parents about the need for more teacher assistants, increased per-pupil spending, more money for textbooks and better pay for teachers. But listening isn’t the same as responding. 

Indeed, the legislature has left itself unable to adequately respond because it has put tax cuts ahead of investment in public schools. A series of corporate and personal income tax cuts will cost the state $1 billion in fiscal year 2018-19 even as education funding remains stuck below 2008 levels once inflation is factored in.

Republican leaders say the tax cuts will spur the economy, but there’s no evidence that lower tax bills are causing large corporations or wealthy individuals to invest their tax savings in ways that create jobs. Meanwhile, strong public schools and an educated workforce attract new businesses and generates jobs.