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Finding money for teachers will entail hard choices

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By Doug Gardner
Columnist

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Teachers who marched for education at the General Assembly earlier this month are mad at the wrong people.

Here are three groups that teachers should also lobby for higher wages.

1. Your neighbors. Pasquotank County narrowly passed a small increase in the sales tax rate, to be devoted to public education, in the May primary, 51 percent to 49 percent. The numbers were much worse than they seemed. Only 17.8 percent of registered voters bothered to show up. Fifty-one percent of them is 9 percent in favor of the tax increase. That is just one in every 11 registered voters. Eighty-nine percent of citizens either voted against the measure or couldn't be bothered to vote at all.

Knock on your neighbors' doors and make the case for public education. You'll get an earful. I know I did when I used this space for an op-ed in support of the sales tax increase. Many citizens used the word "waste" to describe how our education budget is spent. That was a surprise to me since most of the local budget goes to salaries already.

You'll probably run into lots of home-schoolers and parents who send their children to private schools. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, there are more than 2,200 home-schooled children in this paper's circulation area. Hundreds more attend private and charter schools. Many of their parents have given up on public education. Find out why.

2. The Medicaid lobby. State Medicaid spending has grown 55 percent since 2010, when Republicans took over the Legislature. It is clearly beginning to crowd out spending on other pressing issues in a budget that grows 3 to 4 percent annually. Medicaid partisans are as numerous, articulate and well-organized as teachers. They want Medicaid spending to grow even faster.

North Carolina is not alone in this predicament. Medicaid is lumped with Social Security and Medicare in the "non-discretionary" category of federal spending, placing the funding formula on auto-pilot at a steep trajectory.

Teachers and other readers may choose not to believe me, but state Republicans and the Trump administration in Washington are on track to spend more on Medicaid than any Democrats before them. What they’re planning to spend will squeeze out appropriations for higher education, infrastructure and scientific research as it consumes an ever larger chunk of state and federal budgets.

3. Retired state employees. The cost of making good on North Carolina's pension and retiree health care promises is, like Medicaid, crowding out spending on current priorities. At College of The Albemarle the cost of pension contributions for employees has more than tripled in 10 years. That is growth at 12.3 percent annually in a budget that has fallen recently because of declining enrollment.

The state pension system awards benefits based on the four highest years of pay in a 30-year career (and permits retirement as early as the late 40s). This system is financially sound for now because taxpayers have shoveled ever larger sums into it each year. Paying for these benefits pits generations of retired teachers, highway patrolmen, foresters and clerks against current teachers, law enforcement and other state employees for limited financial resources.

Public schools deserve more money for books, classroom supplies and maintenance. Finding money for this and teacher pay increases will entail hard choices among the competing interests of taxpayers, the poor and retired state employees.

The author is a trustee at College of The Albemarle and a past chairman of the Education Foundation of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools.

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