As a contentious legislative session draws to a close, Republican state lawmakers defended their changes to education during a panel hosted Tuesday by the nonprofit advocacy group MeckEd.
But the two Democrats at the event complained of being shut out of the budget writing process and warned that recent tax cuts could imperil school funding.
One of the more controversial aspects of the education budget involves a change that means the state will no longer automatically fund growth in public schools. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison called it a “radical” change that will make planning and teacher recruitment much more difficult.
Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, said that while Mecklenburg County has consistent growth, the old funding model didn’t make sense in 72 of the state’s 100 counties.
“You get a story that’s just a piece of the puzzle,” he said. Still, he said, “It should have been discussed more than it was.”
Veteran teachers have also been angered by changes to the teacher pay scale that benefit newer employees more than those with long tenures. While the average pay raise for teachers is about 7 percent, younger teachers can get as much as an 18 percent pay bump while teachers with 30 years experience might get less than 1 percent.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican who represents Cornelius, said the decision was based on research.
“When you front-load teacher compensation, it has a direct impact on student outcomes,” he said.
Democrats on the panel, Sen. Jeff Jackson and Rep. Tricia Cotham, said several times that they weren’t able to comment on the reasoning for changes to education because they weren’t involved in the decisions.
Bill Anderson, executive director of MeckEd, cited fiscal research that the state could face a $5.3 billion deficit over the next five years, in part because of changes to the tax code.
Republicans acknowledged that cutting taxes means that the legislature must weigh priorities. “Tax reform does create choices,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said.
But the Democrats on the panel warned that taking that route could compromise the education system in North Carolina.
“You cannot have major tax cuts and major investments in public education,” said Jackson, who represents Mecklenburg.