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A basic math lesson for N.C. lawmakers

It’s near impossible, especially during election season, to find public officeholders who don’t think that education is critical to the future of North Carolina. Yet somewhere on the way from the campaign trail to their seats in the General Assembly, N.C. Republicans have decided it’s OK to weaken the classrooms so many of our children walk into each day.

Here’s what the Senate and House budget plan, set for a vote this week, does to N.C. schools:

It cuts education spending by almost $500 million in the next two years, including a decrease in net spending for K-12 public schools.

It invites bigger and more chaotic classrooms by removing the cap on some classroom sizes and cutting funding for elementary school teacher assistants. School systems can offset those cuts if they somehow find money in their shrinking budgets, but if they don’t, more than 3,850 second- and third-grade teaching assistants will be gone.

It phases out extra pay for teachers who earn a master’s degree, removing at least some incentive for teachers to improve themselves and their classrooms.

Most critically, it continues to pay N.C. public school teachers abysmally. The budget doesn’t give teachers raises next year, which guarantees that N.C. will continue to rank near the bottom of national rankings in teacher pay.

“North Carolina teacher pay is dismal compared to the nation and all of our bordering states,” said N.C. Superintendent June Atkinson in response to the budget plan this week. “Starting teachers can earn $10,000 more per year in some of our neighbor states, while a teacher with six years experience will make the same as a first-year teacher here in North Carolina. Why should teachers stay in our state?”

A corresponding question: How can parents be happy sending their children to schools that are increasingly filled with dissatisfied teachers, or teachers with an eye out for better jobs in other states, or perhaps some teachers not good enough to get those other jobs? We’ve long crossed our fingers and counted on a teacher’s passion for children overcoming the difficulty and low pay of the profession. Now N.C. lawmakers are adding even bigger classrooms, fewer assistants, stagnating paychecks and incentives being cut.

How could legislators possibly think this is a good idea? Here’s a clue: The budget also includes a $10 million program that allows low-income families to use up to $4,200 for private school tuition. It’s the first step in a Republican move toward bigger voucher programs, which will inevitably shift education money from public schools to private schools. And the worse those underfunded public schools get, the easier it is for Republicans to declare them failed instead of fixable.

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger insisted this week that Republicans aren’t gutting public education, and lawmakers pointed to spending on technology and safety programs. But our schools are only as strong as the people who stand in front of the class, and N.C.’s budget is not only cutting education spending overall, it’s giving the best and brightest teachers every reason to try something else – or try the same thing somewhere else. That’s not good for our state, our workforce, our children, or our future.

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