Lawmakers see a different picture in education budget numbers

May 1, 2019 GMT

While thousands of teachers marched outside the legislature to protest the way the General Assembly has treated education funding in recent years, Republican lawmakers inside the building looked at the same numbers and saw a very different picture.

“We have made dramatic efforts in our phase-in program with teacher compensation,” Rep. Jeff Elmore, R-Wilkes, said. “And as you see in the House budget, we are targeting our veteran teachers, because we want to retain our veteran teachers. That has a dramatic impact with rural North Carolina.”

Elmore has a unique viewpoint on the dispute between the legislature and the rallying teachers: When the legislature is not in session, he teaches elementary school art. He is the only working teacher in the General Assembly.

He said while he was meeting with teachers from Forsyth County Wednesday, one very tall male teacher hugged him and thanked him when he heard about the House’s proposed teacher raise of 4.8%.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said he was happy to see the red-shirted teachers gathered en masse in Halifax Mall.

“We’re glad to see folks come, we’re glad for our teachers and what they do,” Moore said.

But he took issue with suggestions that the legislature was not doing enough for education.

“Under this budget,” he said, “average teacher pay will be $56,500. Base pay for the most experienced teachers will be $60,000.”

And he said pointing to per-pupil spending -- where North Carolina ranks 45th in the country, according to Education Week -- was misleading.

“I want to know that we’re getting the best outcome that we can for our students,” Moore said.. “Look at high school graduation rates. They’re the highest they’ve ever been for the state. Look at the achievement scores of our students on tests, they’re the best they’ve ever been.”

Moore also pointed to the growing North Carolina economy, which he attributed to Republican-championed tax cuts, and said it would increase the tax base, which would generate more money for education.

He was seconded on that score by Sen. Vicki Sawyer, R-Iredell.

Asked about North Carolina’s low rank in per-pupil spending, Sawyer said, “I’m grateful that under Republican leadership that we have had a booming economy. That will create jobs, which also creates a tax base, which will allow us to spend more on education.”

State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson said he sympathized with the rallying teachers. “Since I campaigned for this office,” he said, “I knew that we had a problem where teachers were having to reach into their own pockets to buy classroom supplies ... That’s gotta stop.”

But he had an issue with rally organizers -- the North Carolina Association of Educators.

“My concern was closing schools to have this protest,” Johnson said. “And I want to be very specific about separating teachers from the organizers of this protest. The organizers specifically chose today in order to have this protest to close schools ...

“This could have been just as impactful over the summer when the legislature would still be here.”