Opinion: Carolina Beat

Policy Discussions Need To Continue

RALEIGH — The 2015 long legislative session has proven to be just that: long. Many productive ideas have been discussed, among them whether we should take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs to borrow and address long-neglected needs; whether insurance companies or providers should administer Medicaid; and whether state government spending should be reined in or grow at will.

As the 2015 session draws to an end, one thing is clear: We need to keep talking.

I’d like to continue the conversation on how counties spend their money, increasing accountability in higher education, and expanding the pipeline for quality teachers.

One of the most controversial issues addressed this session has been the distribution of sales tax revenue. Discussing whether the revenue should be distributed based mainly on where purchases are made or where people live tries to address fairness. But it doesn’t tackle the main issue: How counties — rural and urban — spend the money they receive.

We heard a lot about a new formula creating winners and losers, and, of course, every county wants more. But are current spending priorities in line with taxpayer expectations? Do counties need more to spend, or do they need to spend better?

If, under a new formula, some counties got a windfall, how would they use it? Reduce property tax rates? Return it to the citizens? Build skating rinks, soccer fields, or theaters? School construction? And who gets to decide?

The same scrutiny is needed for those counties that stand to lose money under a new formula. Often the default is to assume that current spending priorities are the correct ones. Instead we need to discuss the appropriate amount of spending and prioritize from there.

Funding for universities and community colleges once was based entirely on the number of students enrolling — multiply per-pupil funding by the number of students to get the allocation for the school year. Recently, North Carolina joined 32 states making a portion of funding dependent on performance indicators such as course completion, time to degree, transfer rates, number of degrees awarded, and number of low-income or minority graduates. The baselines are reset every three years.

This is an important step toward regular review and accountability. Gov. Pat McCrory offers another good suggestion — a component for how many graduates get jobs.

But only a tiny amount of the funding is tied to performance — $1 million of the $2.6 billion UNC system budget and $24 million of $1 billion in community college spending. We need to talk about making performance funding a larger portion of the formula.

Funding for teacher assistants, maintaining student-teacher ratios, and ensuring a strong and steady pipeline of quality teachers were all part of the budget and accountability discussions. Solid research tells us that, particularly in the lower grades, a lower student-teacher ratio enhances student performance.

So where will we get new teachers? A pool of highly committed, quality educators may well be found in the ranks of teacher assistants. We should look at ways to transition teacher assistants into full-time teachers, for example, by offering some credit for working under a mentor teacher. We should remove barriers preventing the best, brightest, and most dedicated teacher assistants from becoming full-time teachers.

The discussion over proper teacher pay should include finding a balance between teaching and testing, opportunities for advancement, reducing red tape, and rewarding excellence. We need to ensure every student has a good teacher. Now we need to talk about how to get more of them.

This session has been long but productive with good ideas, discussions, and decisions. There’s much more to do. Let’s keep talking.

Becki Gray (@beckigray) is vice president for outreach at the John Locke Foundation.