This week, North Carolina’s legislature adjourned for the year after passing new congressional district maps. Despite last-minute efforts to get a mini-budget passed that would raise wages for all state employees, including teachers, lawmakers will leave Raleigh without a teacher raise under their belts.
The unwelcome news comes a few weeks after national test results showed no progress for North Carolina’s reading scores since 2009. As a home to many of the state’s future educators and a university committed to advancing the public good, the NC State community should care about the quality of education afforded to young students. The bickering of the legislature could be one reason why our schools are not improving.
One effort to resolve this ongoing issue is the Read to Achieve program, started in 2012 due to a push by the NC Senate president, Phil Berger. Over the past several years, the program has spent $150 million on devices and camps to assist K-3rd grade students who have trouble with reading. Unfortunately, the program has borne no fruit, with Berger noting its mixed success in his pitch for a revision to the program earlier this year. That revision bill was vetoed by the governor, who sees the unmoved test scores as evidence of ineffectiveness.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Gov. Roy Cooper has pushed consistently for teacher raises each year he’s been in office, an effort he redoubled when Republicans lost supermajority control of the legislature, which had allowed them to negate his vetoes. As a result of what he saw as too-low raises and a refusal to address Medicaid expansion, Cooper vetoed the budget, setting in motion a months-long drama.
Legislators have successfully skirted the budget impasse by passing mini-budgets which fund particular parts of the state government. Pay for teachers and other state employees did not see this kind of smooth sailing, as both sides refused the others’ attempts at compromise between the 3.9% and 6.5% increases pitched by Republicans and Cooper, respectively.
Reading scores are an important factor in a child’s future success. One study from the UK found the reading level at age 7 was a strong indirect factor in determining a person’s socioeconomic status at age 42. For those who regard education as an engine for social mobility, this study underscores why reading competency in elementary school is a worthwhile goal for the state. Better readers become wealthier, more successful adults, a boon for universities like NC State which further their education and the state as a whole by benefitting from their tax revenue.
It’s clear that both parties want to see better scores, but in the face of little progress, it’s challenging to accept an approach that one does not agree with. The evidence is truly mixed on the Read to Achieve program, with admittedly bleak topline numbers that Cooper relies on paired with possible successes in individual districts which could theoretically be spread elsewhere.
Fortunately, the state government doesn’t have to choose between increasing teacher pay and prolonging Read to Achieve. One of the budget items that failed to pass was a proposed tax rebate of $125 per person to spend a $900 million budget surplus the state had this year. This large surplus — for comparison, the whole budget is $24 billion — enables the legislature to allocate more money to teacher pay and the program, without having to cut corners.
During good economic times, we have the resources to experiment with a wide array of solutions and see what sticks, and this is the approach our government should be taking. Instead, officials have held up each other’s desired programs in order to appeal to their base and undermine their opponents, despite there being no real need. Education is an investment in the future, and our leaders should recognize this and act on it together.