They suited up in their red t-shirts, hoisted their homemade signs and coursed like a river through the heart of downtown Raleigh.
Destination: The headquarters of North Carolina’s General Assembly.
Message: Game on!
Yes, May 16 was supposed to have been a school day. But it also was the opening day of the legislature’s 2018 regular session – the so-called short session when the next state budget will be finalized and positions staked out in the run-up to next fall’s elections.
The thousands of red-clad teachers who marched, chanted, clapped and shouted knew this was a moment not to be missed – a moment when they’d be impossible to ignore. Many of them had been given the day off by school boards that bowed to the inevitable.
They rallied for better pay, for a better-funded public education system across the board, for treatment as the dedicated professionals they are. For the respect that should go with their territory.
Through their punchy signs, their speeches, their meetings with legislators, they drove home what is perhaps the key point in the entire debate over the financing of our public schools: To shortchange the schools is to shortchange the children whose prospects in life hinge so dramatically on the quality of their education. And when we cheat young people in that fashion, we risk grave damage not only to them but also to families, to communities, to our whole social fabric. In other words, the risk extends to all of us.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature of course aren’t prepared to concede that anyone has been cheated. They point to recent teacher salary increases that have nudged average pay levels slightly higher and to plans for a 6 percent boost in the budget year beginning July 1. Per-pupil spending also has drifted up.
But North Carolina continues to underperform on both counts. Even with the planned round of raises, teachers here will be making less than they were before the big recession of 2008-09. They’ve also lost longevity pay – a blow to senior teachers whose pay has been allowed to stagnate — and have seen the cost of their health benefits go up. New teachers no longer can make more by earning an advanced degree.
Meanwhile, the state’s public school outlays per pupil, when adjusted for inflation, are pegged at 12 percent below what they were when the recession hit. When you’ve been put on a bread-and-water diet and the bread ration goes from one slice to two, it’s hard to get excited about being a little less hungry.
Explanations for this sorry state of affairs involve priorities, ideology and the safeguarding of political power – although on that score, conservative legislators who have been inclined to treat teachers as political foes may end up wishing they’d not done so much to antagonize.
The legislature’s Republican leaders, from the time they took control in 2011, have made cutting taxes their Job Number One.
Income tax rates, both personal and corporate, have been slashed, and the graduated personal tax has been converted to a flat-rate levy under which people with six- or seven-figure incomes pay the same percentage as, well, public school teachers.
Billions of dollars that would have been collected under the prior tax code have been forfeited, in line with the conservative doctrine that sees tax cuts as a reliable way to stimulate the economy.
But while North Carolina’s economy has improved since the recession, just as the whole nation’s has, its performance has been at best middling compared with other nearby states that have declined to take the tax-cut plunge. (That came to light during a recent presentation by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, conducted via N.C. Policy Watch.) Many counties continue to languish.
What the cuts have done, chiefly, is make life easier for the high-end earners and profitable companies that have scored the biggest tax breaks – while at the same time crimping the state’s ability to fund public services, education prominent among them.
And with that hole having been dug, the legislative plan is to dig it deeper. Cuts in income tax rates slated to take effect in 2019 are expected to mean the loss of another $900 million a year.
Lower taxes’ purported benefits may be a conservative touchstone, but it’s past time to consider what the benefits could be if more revenue were on hand – for instance, enabling teacher pay to reach or even exceed the national average. That shouldn’t be too much to wish for if North Carolina truly values its teacher corps and truly wants to put outstanding teachers in every classroom.
The budget arena
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper – warmly received when he spoke at the teachers’ jam-packed rally across the street from the Legislative Building – has maneuvered to co-opt the center of the debate.
In his budget plan for the next fiscal year, Cooper would cancel the planned tax cut on income above $200,000. Not only would that shift the tax code a notch toward fairness, with handsome incomes being taxed at a slightly higher rate, but it also would generate another $110 million or so in yearly revenue.
The governor would put the money toward teacher pay raises averaging 8 percent, as opposed to the legislature’s 6 percent target. And he’d also make sure some of the money went to experienced classroom veterans, who get a cold shoulder under the legislative plan.
If the legislature’s recent track record is any guide, the session now getting under way has a high potential for unpleasant surprises. The mischief could include power grabs seemingly launched out of nowhere, pandering to special interests that oppose common-sense regulations, and more efforts to curb the independence of the courts and thus their ability to uphold constitutional rules of the road.
The main plot line, though, involves the budget – the state’s spending blueprint and thus in effect its ongoing mission statement. Money-raising decisions complete the annual puzzle.
Republican Sen. Phil Berger of Eden, his chamber’s leader as president pro tem, and Rep. Tim Moore of Kings Mountain, speaker of the House, already have agreed on a $23.9 billion spending target. That’s some $600 million below Cooper’s recommendation – leaving plenty of room to debate the tradeoffs between further tax cuts and greater investment in services.
Anticipated budget surpluses of an estimated $634 million, in part related to federal tax changes that are bringing windfalls to many state treasuries, also will be in play. Spending even a little of that could go a long way toward replacing obsolete textbooks and instructional technologies in the schools, or toward easing the shortage of school nurses and counselors.
The magnificent display of support for public education that we’ve just witnessed highlights North Carolina’s shortcomings and leaves no doubt as to the consequences when our public schools and their employees are deprived of the resources they need to be effective.
Now, the challenge is to devise a plan of action by which all the fervor, all the well-aimed enthusiasm that boiled over when thousands of teachers took to Raleigh’s streets, escapes that familiar, damning verdict: sound and fury signifying nothing.
What that will take is a focused effort to identify those legislators who either will or won’t get behind policy choices ensuring that our public schools are funded well enough to do their duty – above all, their duty to the young people whose futures are in so many ways entrusted to them.
If a legislative candidate on the November ballot embraces a pro-public education agenda – even if it means rescinding tax cuts – then that candidate, whatever his or her party, likely deserves the support of teachers and their allies.
If there is no such embrace, then the power of public education advocates at the polls must be brought to bear.
Let’s hope the prospect of thousands of votes one way or the other will concentrate the minds of legislators as they grapple with upcoming budget decisions – and that they prioritize the well-being not only of teachers but especially of the students who count on our public schools to put them on a fulfilling path. From the standpoint of the Council of Churches, to do any less when it comes to the treatment of children is to betray our obligation to protect the interests of the vulnerable.