Let's hope the short session doesn't come up short

Published April 4, 2024

By Tom Campbell

The short session of the North Carolina General Assembly convenes on April 10th and, as always, legislative leaders are predicting it will be short. They may be right this time.
After the 2023 session – aka “the power grab session” so named for the number of ways lawmakers inserted themselves into the agencies, boards and commissions of government - we all need a breather to determine the outcome of court challenges, as well as repercussions resulting from those changes. Besides, legislators want to get back home and campaign before things become so “noisy” they get lost in the election cycle.
And while it is a fool’s errand to predict what will be done and how long the session will last there are two important items that should be approved. Both involve education.
It would be dreaming to hope that legislators have recognized their folly for essentially dismantling traditional district schools. We should not be 48th in the nation for per pupil expenditures. But the absolutely essential item they must address is teacher pay. Currently we rank 36th in average teacher salaries and 46th for starting teacher salaries.
The 3.5 percent average pay increase lawmakers appropriated for teachers last year was laughable. Not only did it fail to keep up with inflation, it amounted to a pay decrease (in inflation adjusted dollars) for our most experienced teachers. Further, it did nothing to relieve the current teacher shortage and discourages college students from entering the field of education.
In a recent article in The Washington Post, Daniel Pink, best-selling author of books on science, business and economics said,

"If we're serious about hanging on to capable educators, and attracting new ones, we should start treating them like true professions. And one place to begin is compensation. Why not pay America's teachers a minimum salary of $100,000 a year? The average annual salary for public school teachers during 2021-2022 was $66,397, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a newly 8 percent pay cut, in inflation-adjusted terms, from a decade ago...

"For all the education fads of the past 50 years, researchers have found that what matters most for student learning....is a high-quality-teacher."

 Pink says this pay increase should come with two strings attached.

"First, a longer school year. Eliminating summer break might spark a national uprising among 8-year-old and tourism industry executives. But the nine-month school year is a relic....Professionals work year-round. Teachers should, too. A longer school year could also reduce summer learning loss.

"Second, greater accountability. Many teachers are excellent; some are heroic. But any parent know that a few just aren't up to the job. Under current employment arrangements, it's difficult to steer the underperformers out of the profession. And with pay based largely on seniority, mediocre teachers lack much incentive to depart or even to improve. Low-performing, less-committed peers erode the morale of the majority of teachers who do they jobs well. Treating all teachers like professionals means showing a few teachers the door."

I suspect our lawmakers aren’t willing to increase teacher pay to $100k per year, but they could implement significant and meaningful steps for providing more livable wages for our teachers. A recent article on CNN makes the point. To afford to purchase a median price home in North Carolina requires a household income of at least $92,657 per year. We can’t starve education and educators and expect excellence.
The second initiative is equally important. North Carolina boasts the second largest community college system in the nation. Not only is it large, but it is extremely effective. However, it has never received the funding it deserves, partially because of an antiquated funding model. Colleges get more funding for two-year associate degree programs than for non-degree or continuing education courses.
While it is a good thing for our citizens to be able to stay close to home and get their first two years of college at more affordable tuitions this often is not what older workers and businesses need.
The 58 Community Colleges are asking the legislature to restructure the funding model. The “Propel NC” initiative would remove the distinction and funding between degree and non-degree workforce training courses, adding $100 million yearly to the existing $1.4 billion in appropriations. It also asks for an additional $6 million in anticipation of enrollment surges until the funding formulas catch up.
The 58 schools are going to be making a full-court press for the legislature to grant the new funding and, given the fact they are scattered across the state and have local board members who will be lobbying legislators (in an election year) we think they stand a good chance of receiving what they ask.
Both proposals are a wise investment in our state’s future. Talk to your legislators and tell them you are hopeful they won’t come up short in education funding in this short session.  
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.  Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com