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As school begins, let’s give North Carolina students a fully funded future

School begins this week for over a million public school students across North Carolina, from 5-year-olds stepping into a kindergarten classroom for the first time to high school seniors embarking on their final year. We fund public schools with our collective tax dollars so that in every county, all our children — Black, brown, and white — can get an education that gives them an opportunity for a fulfilling and successful life and because good schools are the foundation for a thriving economy.

Public funds for public education drive equitable economic growth

Teachers require students to turn in their homework on time, but General Assembly leaders are still negotiating the state budget behind closed doors nearly two months past its due date. This means teachers are starting the year without a raise, and too many of our kids’ schools don’t have the resources they need. The General Assembly still could choose to pass a budget that fully funds the court-ordered Leandro Plan, which would make equitable investments in public education to meet the basic needs of all children in North Carolina. Research from other states makes it clear that using public dollars to increase funding for public education means better outcomes for kids and for our communities: Students are more likely to graduate, to attend college, and to have higher incomes as adults. These investments improve economic mobility for students from families with lower incomes, and spur equitable economic growth that benefits everyone. Robust public education funding, along with other key provisions in the Leandro Plan, would also advance racial equity in our school system.

But over the past decade, our legislative leaders diverted our tax dollars to wealthy people and corporations instead of building up equitable public institutions. They’ve passed laws to eliminate the corporate income tax by 2030 and to flatten and slash the personal income tax rate. And for even longer, our state hasn’t met the moral and legal requirement to ensure that every child in North Carolina receives a sound, basic education.

Tax cuts and private school vouchers divert our public money to the wealthy

Key parts of the N.C. budget proposals we’ve seen so far risk doubling down on handouts to private interests and tax cuts that would put funding for public education at risk for years to come. Both the Senate and House budget proposals include major increases in public spending on “Opportunity Scholarships” that would allow families at any income level to use the state’s public education funds to pay for private school tuition. This means that rich families can receive public subsidies for private education, while taking funding away from the public schools that the vast majority of children attend.

The Senate’s budget proposal would make even deeper cuts to the personal income tax in future years, and it proposes bringing the state personal income tax rate down to 2.49% in 2030. By scheduling cuts out into the future, politicians avoid taking responsibility for the harm these cuts will cause. Cutting the personal tax rate to 2.49% will reduce state revenue by $7.6 billion each year when fully enacted, which is more than the annual cost of fully funding the Leandro Plan and increasing teacher pay so that teachers can get fair pay for their work and schools can fill teaching vacancies.

North Carolina’s rigged tax code asks people with lower incomes — like teachers — to pay more

As some politicians have rigged our state tax code to benefit the wealthy, sales taxes make up a growing portion of the taxes paid by North Carolinians. These choices have left North Carolina with an upside-down tax code, where people with lower incomes pay the biggest portion of their income in state and local taxes. Based on the most recent analysis available, a new teacher who is paid $37,000 per year — the state’s starting salary for public educators — pays 9.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes. Someone getting an average teacher’s pay of $57,735 pays 8.9 percent of their income in state and local taxes. Yet the richest North Carolinians, families with incomes of $477,500 and more, pay just 6.4% of their income in state and local taxes. (This analysis is based on 2019 tax laws, and because deeper cuts to personal and corporate income taxes have been put in place since then, the tax system is likely even more inequitable now.)

 N.C. can use our public money to build an excellent public education system

It's no surprise that slashing personal and corporate income taxes means that states end up cutting funding to core public institutions like education. Our General Assembly would do well to heed the recent warning from a former Republican legislator from Kansas who cautioned that sweeping tax cuts don’t bring economic prosperity but, instead, weaken the core services that our communities rely on. North Carolina needs a better economic vision, and the children starting school deserve a fully funded future. We can give it to them by coming together to demand that our leaders use our public money to create excellent public education in North Carolina.