Governor releases budget proposal

by Alex Granados,

Governor Roy Cooper released his 2019-21 budget proposal today, including an average 9.1 percent teacher pay increase, elimination of new opportunity scholarships, a revamped principal pay schedule, and more. 

The release comes just one day after the Governor presented highlights from his education budget to a group of middle school educators as a sign of “respect” for teachers.

“North Carolinians are determined to succeed and this budget invests in that determination through better schools and better opportunities for people to find good jobs and keep their families healthy and safe,” Cooper said in a press release. 

Cooper’s plan includes $600 million over two years to increase teacher pay as part of his goal of reaching the highest average salary in the southeast. This would round out to an average increase of 9.1 percent over the biennium for teachers.

His proposal would also revamp the state’s principal salary schedule. Currently, the schedule pays principals based on school size and the academic growth of its students. Cooper would change the schedule so that principals are paid according to years of experience and school size.

One of the biggest asks in his budget is a $3.9 billion school bond for construction and renovation. This rivals the $1.9 billion school construction bond bill being considered in the House. Cooper’s bond plan includes $2 billion for K-12 schools, and $500 million each for community colleges and the University of North Carolina System institutions. The House proposal includes $1.5 billion for K-12 and $200 million each for the community college and UNC systems.

Cooper’s budget would restore master’s pay, which is a salary increase given to educators who have a master’s degree in their field of study. It would also phase out the opportunity scholarship program, which gives needy students money to attend a private school of their choice. Cooper’s plan would eliminate scholarships from being awarded to new applicants starting in 2019-20, though it would not take away scholarships already awarded.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Education Freedom in North Carolina — a pro-school choice organization that promotes opportunity scholarships — sent out a statement following the release of Cooper’s budget proposal. 

“It’s disappointing, though not surprising, that Roy Cooper would once again prioritize a one-size-fits-all education system ahead of low-income families by attacking the very program providing thousands of North Carolina students equal access to a quality education,” Long said. 

The Governor wants to expand the Teaching Fellows Program, a loan forgiveness program for students who want to become teachers in North Carolina. His plan would allow students to be eligible for the program no matter their subject area. The program currently only targets teachers in Science, Technology, Education, and Math (STEM), and special education. Cooper’s plan would restore the Teaching Fellows Program to something similar to what it was before it was eliminated by the General Assembly in 2011. The new Teaching Fellows Program was resurrected in 2017.

Cooper’s budget includes $40 million for nurses, counselors, psychologists, school resources officers, and other support staff for districts. It also provides $29 million for textbook, supply, and digital resources, and expands the Finish Line Grants program. That is a program that gives grants of up to $1,000 to community college students who are close to completing their education but need money to cover unexpected emergencies. 

After the release of Cooper’s budget, a statement went out from Senators Harry Brown (R-Onslow), Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston), and Brent Jackson (R-Sampson) in opposition to the plan.

“After speaking for months about the importance of collaboration, Governor Cooper didn’t bother sharing his budget with anybody in the legislature before his press conference,” the statement said. Later, it added: 

“This is not a serious budget proposal. It is a political document that seems designed to cater to the Governor’s tax-and-spend base that put us in a hole ten years ago.

“Responsible Republican spending policies balanced the budget and cut taxes while investing record-breaking amounts in education and giving teachers five consecutive pay raises. These policies led to a boom decade that will help our children inherit a thriving state. But Governor Cooper seems to want our children to pay for his reckless spending habits instead.”

The House got in on the criticism too, with a press release from “Senior budget writers,” including Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, a House appropriations committee co-chair. 

“North Carolinians are enjoying the prosperity of a thriving economy that is the direct result of responsible state government reforms and spending,” she said in the release. “Returning to days of broken programs and overspending is the wrong approach for schools, taxpayers, and future generations.”

The release of the Governor’s budget is just the first step in the budget process. Both chambers of the General Assembly must come up with their versions before lawmakers hash out a final spending plan.