RALEIGH – All teachers will get a $750 bonus this year, say House and Senate leadership in a joint press conference this afternoon. In addition, teachers in the early part of their careers, 0-5 years of experience, will get the second phase of a multi-year plan to bring entry-level teacher salaries in North Carolina to the national average. Those teachers will have a salary bump from $33,000 to $35,000. The budget also fully funds the pay steps for all teachers passed as part of last year’s budget.
Overall, the state increases spending on K-12 education by 5 percent. The historic number of Senate and House conferees packed the small press room at the Legislative Building to outline the long-awaited compromise plan.
“This increases the funding for k-12 schools by $410 million, the community colleges by $20 million and the university system by $99 million,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain). “We are very proud of the progress we made in education funding in this budget.”
After months of negotiations and three Continuing Resolutions, the chambers were able to find middle ground on most issues, including reducing income tax, broadening sale tax and increasing money for state salaries and education. They announced a final total spending agreement of $21.735 billion last week. However, with classes well underway and pervasive uncertainty swirling in school budget offices all summer, some are saying that the tardiness of the deal is taking the shine off it.
“This is a good, conservative budget, probably the best one we’ve had,” said House Majority Leader Mike Hager (R-Rutherford). “We’re trying to fundamentally change government, moving from a mandatory tax system to a voluntary one and that takes time. I think the amount of time it took made the budget better. “
The budget also fully funds TAs, a priority in the original House version of the budget. However, in the conference report the funds are earmarked in the second year specifically for those positions, ending flexibility for principals who may want to spend the money elsewhere. The first year of the budget maintains some leeway on the positions so local administrators can prepare for the change. In the recent months, the Senate and Governor McCrory have advocated for block grants at the local level so schools or school districts have maximum flexibility to spend the money where they need it most. But now they say the earmarks are designed to increase transparency, so future General Assemblies will know exactly how education money is spent.
“All teachers are treated the same, with the exception of the entry-level teachers,” said Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham). “The amount of money we’ve put toward education this year, plus what we put toward it last year, represents a significant investment in education.”
What about Driver’s Ed?
State funding for Driver Education is also maintained at its current level, which is that the state pays all but $65 of each students 60-hour driver training program. The issue has been hotly contested all summer. Supporters said that the state should subsidize Driver’s Ed if it is going to require it for teenagers. Opponents said that a driver’s license for teenagers is optional therefore they, or their parents, should foot the total bill.
In the end, the state is still going to help kick in for the program, but the uncertainty over the summer led Wake County’s primary Driver’s Ed contractor for Wake county suspended classes and asked parents to lobby their legislators to keep funding the program. The budget also allows for data collection to study the effectiveness of Driver Education and whether or not what is being taught in the classroom lines up with the driving test, and even whether some of the classroom lessons could be administered online.
“The roads are more filled than they used to be. Children all need to know how to drive safely and parents need some skin in the game,” said Rep. Pat Hurley (R-Asheboro). “It will stay at $65, but some school districts do offer scholarships if they need them.”
The Senate’s plan to reduce class size in the lower grades made it into the conference report. In the second year of the budget, it requires a 1:16 teacher student ratio. The budget also adds $14 million to the Opportunity Scholarship program which provide money for low-income children to attend a private school. The pilot program launched last year generated years-long waiting lists, and while lawmakers said these addition funds will not cover every family on that list, it will make a significant dent in it.
The budget also restores funding for textbooks, although not at the level prior to last year’s cuts. But it does build the digital learning funds and allocates money to the School Connectivity Initiative to work on getting broadband to more schools, a project that Gov. McCrory has put at the top of his priority list. While no one in the budget process ended up with their entire wish list, lawmakers say that the system worked the way it should.
“It’s not perfect,” said Sen. Berger. “But we recognize that its an appropriate compromise that moves North Carolina in the right direction.”