Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled his first two-year state budget proposal March 1, prioritizing education and other issues he emphasized on the campaign trail.
The governor’s recommended budget, which would increase the state’s spending by $1.1 billion from last year, would raise public school teachers’ salaries by 10 percent over the next two years, invest millions of dollars in raising pre-kindergarten enrollment and aim to improve the quality of K-12 public schools.
Billy Ball, an education reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, said raising teacher pay will help the state retain its most experienced educators, a demographic Republicans largely neglected in recent legislation.
“The Republican pay raises over the past few years have really been tailored to beginning teachers,” Ball said. “It hasn’t done a whole lot to improve conditions for those really experienced teachers. Frankly, some of the best teachers we have in the state are in that area.”
Cooper plans to improve public schools by purchasing new textbooks and digital learning materials, while also hiring more classroom support staff.
The governor also proposed free community college for North Carolina residents through Getting Ready for Opportunities in the Workforce scholarships. The scholarships would cover all tuition and fees for recent high school graduates with a GPA of 2.0 or higher to attend a community college of their choice.
The budget proposal would position North Carolina among the top 10 most educated states by 2025, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
“Reaching the Top 10 in these three categories is critical to our economic competitiveness and to the wellbeing of our citizens,” Cooper said in the press release.
Ball said North Carolina’s improvement in education would likely be reflected in fiscal rankings.
“With these kinds of pay raises going into place, we can definitely see our rankings in spending per student and rankings in spending per teacher pay rise up,” Ball said.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation, said spending money in education will not necessarily lead to positive effects.
“The bulk of his claim is that there will be more children in state-funded educational programs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll have a more educated populace,” Stoops said.
Stoops said he would rather see a shift toward school choice and charter schools, through which the state would make a greater return on taxpayer dollars.
“I would give children an opportunity to attend a school that best meets their needs, rather than assuming that the school they are assigned to is going to meet their needs,” Stoops said. “We should be trusting parents to make those decisions through private school vouchers, charter school or additional opportunities to home-school.”
The budget would also expand Medicaid coverage by 624,000 North Carolinians, hire 56 probation officers, set aside $2 million for environmental safety regulations and build a museum and visitor’s center at Fort Fisher in New Hanover County.
Overall, Ball said he found the proposal — particularly its educational provisions — to be fairly predictable for Cooper’s first attempt at a state budget.
“Education was something that was very important to his campaign,” he said. “And it was something that was very important to his supporters as well.”
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