Where we stand: Underfunded

Published September 15, 2022

By Higher Ed Works

North Carolina is on a roll winning new – and future-oriented – business. We’ve seen big job announcements over the past year from household names like Toyota, Apple and Google.

We should be proud of that.

Between the Triangle and the Triad, we see an emerging corridor that will focus on the growing electric vehicle industry and even supersonic flight. 

Gov. Roy Cooper and legislative leaders deserve credit for assembling the right incentives for these companies. CNBC even named North Carolina the No. 1 state in the country for business, citing that bipartisan collaboration between the Democratic governor and the Republican legislature.1  

And we should be proud of that.

The business climate is obviously excellent. The business tax structure is advantageous. Our universities provide an abundance of talent. Quality of life – from our climate to sports and the arts – is excellent. Our citizens are good folks who don’t mind work.

SO WHY CAN’T WE be No. 1 in education as well?

The two go hand-in-hand – the tech jobs pouring into our state demand an educated workforce. Higher levels of education correlate with higher income and better health. We must continue to invest in public education if we want to remain No. 1 in business.

Yet North Carolina ranked 49th in the percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) the state devoted to public education in 2018, according to the National Science Foundation.

In 2009, the state directed more than 3% of its GDP to education. But by 2018, that percentage had shrunken to 2.5%.2  

That’s no small difference – half a percentage point of a state GDP that’s now more than $500 billion is another $2.5 billion a year that might have gone to educating our children.

If we are to supply workers for the companies coming here – familiar names like Apple (3,000 jobs), Toyota (1,750), Wolfspeed (formerly Cree, 1,800) and Google (1,000), as well as less familiar ones like VinFast (7,500) and Boom Supersonic (1,760)3  – we need to make a course correction.

NORTH CAROLINA’S K-12 PUBLIC SCHOOLS opened this year with 11,000 teacher and staff vacancies,44,400 of them teachers.5  

K-12 teachers received an average raise of 4.2% this year – less than half the rate of inflation.6 In fact, when adjusted for inflation, average pay for North Carolina teachers has actually declined since 2012.7 

Perhaps most embarrassing of all, North Carolina now trails Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee8and ranks 34th in the nation in average teacher pay.9 

Is it any wonder 4,400 teachers were not at the front of North Carolina classrooms when school opened?10 Any wonder our public colleges of education have seen a 43% drop in enrollment since 2010?11 

MEANWHILE, LAWYERS again argued the 28-year-old Leandro case over school funding before the NC Supreme Court last month – the case revolves around our constitution’s guarantee that the state will provide every child the opportunity for a sound basic education.

Can the courts force the legislature to spend an additional $785 million on schools before another generation passes through our classrooms?12 

Whether they can or not, we are underfunding our public schools at every level.

And we need to properly pay the people who teach our kids. 

A state commission is developing a new pay plan for teachers,13 but it isn’t expected to take effect for several years.

Pre-school teachers – the ones who prepare young minds to read by 3rd grade, do math by 8th grade and be ready for college – are paid even worse,14 as we’ll show in an update to our Where We Standseries we’ll share in coming weeks.

NC COMMUNITY COLLEGES offer an affordable path to higher education and are critical to training workers for both existing and incoming industries.

Yet pay for instructors at our community colleges lags badly as well. Though we have the 3rd-largest system in the country, pay for its instructors ranked 41st15  in the country and 8th in the Southeast in 2020-21.16 

The State Board of Community Colleges developed a plan this year to grant community-college faculty and staff raises of 8% over three years, to the projected average of faculty salaries in neighboring Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

The legislature granted a raise of 3.5% – again, less than half the rate of inflation, and despite a budget surplus of $6.5 billion.17 

So can our community colleges train workers for Toyota, Google, Apple, Vinfast, Wolfspeed and Boom – as well as for suppliers to these companies we’re told will follow?

It will take a regional effort by multiple colleges18  – not just one. But that remains to be seen.

AND STATE SUPPORT for the University of North Carolina System has shrunken by $2,900 a year per student, in constant dollars, since 2006-07.19  

Not all of that $2,900 turned into tuition increases, but the cuts did help fuel tuition hikes since the Great Recession, forcing many students to take on more debt.

The General Assembly deserves credit for NC Promise – a measure that reduced tuition to $500 a semester for in-state students at four universities: Western Carolina, UNC Pembroke, Elizabeth City State and now Fayetteville State.20  

That was a step – an $82.5 million step – toward meeting our state constitution’s demand that college be “as far as practicable” free to North Carolinians.21 

The UNC Board of Governors also deserves credit for holding UNC schools’ tuition flat for the past six years.22 But with inflation raising costs for university employees and construction projects, there’s open talk of another tuition increase.23 

Yet the General Assembly plans to spend over $180 million to move the UNC System from Chapel Hill into consolidated offices for the UNC System, NC Community College System, the Department of Public Instruction and Department of Commerce across the street from the legislature.24 

Legislators love to say they’re spending more on education than ever before. That’s true – but it fails to take into account the rapid, accelerating growth of our state. When we factor in that growing number of North Carolinians, we’re not keeping up.

Given these pressures and student learning losses during the pandemic, can North Carolina meet the goal we adopted to have 2 million workers ages 25-44 with a degree or high-quality credential by 2030?

Not unless we make it a priority.

1 https://www.cnbc.com/2022/07/13/north-carolina-is-no-1-in-americas-top-states-for-business.html.
2 https://ncses.nsf.gov/indicators/states/compare-indicators/public-school-expenditures-to-state-gdp.
3 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article259891705.html.
4 https://www.wunc.org/education/2022-08-22/nc-has-over-11-000-vacancies-in-public-schools-a-statewide-survey-finds.
5 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article264526776.html.
6 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/07/a-pay-cut/.
7 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 28.
8 https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2022/08/20/boyle-column-nc-trails-alabama-sc-tennessee-teacher-pay/7841283001/; https://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2022/07/07/alabama-is-schooling-north-carolina-on-teacher-pay/#sthash.fiq2rbOC.JdAVHt6H.dpbs/
9 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article260971512.html.
10 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/09/4400-invisible-teachers/
11 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article264526776.html
12 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/09/leandro-time-to-pony-up/; https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/09/what-will-it-take/
13 https://www.wfae.org/education/2022-09-09/panel-studying-nc-teacher-pay-revises-plan-and-seeks-to-shed-merit-pay-label
14 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 18.
15 https://www.nccommunitycolleges.edu/analytics/dashboards/faculty-salary-comparison-ipeds
16 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 32.
17 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/07/community-colleges-vital-work-for-north-carolinians/.
18 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/04/vinfast-north-carolinas-future-is-bright/
19 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 51.
20 https://www.highereddive.com/news/north-carolina-expands-its-500-tuition-program-will-it-keep-paying-for-it/620355/
21 https://www.ncleg.gov/EnactedLegislation/Constitution/NCConstitution.html, Article IX, Section 9.
22 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/02/unc-board-keep-tuition-flat-a-sixth-year/
23 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/04/bog-inflation-bites-unc-campuses/
24 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/07/unc-across-the-street/.