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Opinion Education “options” we can’t afford

A lot of the news lately from the General Assembly has been about proposals to wildly expand charter schools, deny loans to community college students and allow guns in bars and restaurants, but deliberations about the state budget are proceeding too, mostly at 8:30 every morning.

That’s when budget subcommittees are reviewing not only the spending recommendations from Governor Beverly Perdue, but also “options” presented by legislative staff to help lawmakers find another $1.5 billion to cut beyond the reductions Perdue proposed.

Legislative leaders continue to refuse to consider raising new revenue to avoid draconian cuts and have also ruled out continuing the 2009 temporary tax increases for two more years. Perdue’s budget leaves ¾ of the one cent sales tax increase in place.

The budget targets released last week called for $760 million more in education cuts than Perdue recommended. Wednesday morning the education appropriations subcommittee pored over a list of Perdue’s cuts to public schools and other options presented by legislative staff to help find the additional $760 million to slash.

The list ought to send shivers down the spine of anybody who cares about public education. One option listed was to abolish more than 17,000 teacher assistants, taking away the help for classroom teachers in the crucial grades K-3. Another idea was to abolish more than 6,000 teacher jobs and increase the sizes of the classes for the teachers who remain. Another would cut $28 million out of services for the students most at-risk of dropping out.

Ending state funding for Communities in Schools is on the table. That’s a nonprofit with dramatic success in keeping kids in school and off the streets. They might as well list increasing the dropout rate on the agenda.

One sheet lists completely abolishing More at Four as a budget option. That is the state program that evidence shows improves the academic performance of at risk kids and reduces the achievement gap between white and minority students.

There’s a proposal to cut support services for teachers at school and reduce local systems’ administration and support another $12 million even though the funding has already been reduced to 2000-2001 levels.

There’s plenty more but you get the idea. If very many of these absurd options are part of the final budget, it may be hard to recognize North Carolina’s public schools. Yet there they were in black and white on the page presented by legislative staff. This is what the budget debate has come to.

And it’s not just education. Similar scenes are happening in several other committee rooms in the Legislative Office Building every morning, as lawmakers consider budget cutting options in human services and other areas that are just as shocking as the ones being soberly contemplated in the education meeting.

The new Republican majorities have repeatedly said they can balance the state budget without raising taxes or keeping the 2009 tax hikes on the books and all without doing serious harm to education or the public safety net that so many of the state’s most vulnerable people rely on.

That was hard enough to believe when the session began. Now that the numbers are on the page and we can see the “options,” it is clear that it is impossible.

Unless things change soon, get ready for a much different North Carolina.

NC Policy Watch is a project of the North Carolina Justice Center with major support provided by the AJ Fletcher Foundation.


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