Latest Budget Proposal Sets Wrong Course for Public Schools
April 26, 2011
A blog is by nature a personal account and perspective. That's why it is so unusual that State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison and I co-authored a blog post that we are each placing on our respective pages. These are unusual times, however.
The House Appropriations Education Subcommittee budget under consideration for 2011-13 sets our state on course to be, at best, next to last in the nation in per pupil funding in the short term, but it's the long-term view that's even more disturbing. It is not just the level of cuts (nearly $1.25 billion to public education) that is so troubling. It is also how lawmakers are proposing that local superintendents make these cuts. Local public school districts begin each year with a certain set of assumptions that helps ensure that schools operate smoothly. These are basic items: a classroom teacher for every set number of students, a principal for every school, a certain number of textbook dollars for every student, enough money to fuel school buses, etc.
Under the current proposal, districts may not receive enough funding to meet these simple needs because legislators have proposed significant cuts in certain programs and lines of spending. Our conservative estimates show that public schools would begin the 2011-12 school year about 15 percent below the staffing level our current legislative formulas are supposed to generate in order for schools to perform all of their duties. That equals approximately 18,500 staff positions including classroom teachers, teacher assistants, principals, assistant principals, clerical staff and custodians. Many of these would be cut each year as local school district leaders identify how they will cover the "negative reserve" funding that they are required to return to the state as the budget is currently structured.
In addition to making it difficult for schools to maintain the most basic levels of operation, one legislative proposal sends a strong message that some want to encourage families of children with disabilities to pull their children from public schools – another way to decrease commitments to our state's future. This "incentivized pull-out" would offer a tax credit for students with disabilities who move from public schools to private schools. This is just a foot in the door to offering tax credits for all private school families, and would not expand existing services for students with disabilities at all. In fact, families who choose private schools for students with disabilities would quickly learn that the legal protections their children have in public schools are not available to them in private schools. And, students with disabilities for whom a special private school setting is the most appropriate one already have that option through their local public school. A total of 351 students with disabilities already receive private school placements for this reason. It is hard to imagine why it is a good idea to invite a group of students who most need a stable continuum of educational services to leave the system that provides it – unless the long-term goal is to chip away at public schools in general.
We believe that North Carolinians want to keep their long-standing commitment to public schools as a top priority for our state. That's why a majority of North Carolina voters support keeping the temporary sales tax to make many of these cuts unnecessary. It is hard to see a bright future for a North Carolina with last place school funding and a lukewarm commitment.
June St. Clair Atkinson