The debate over state funding of everything — from Education to Medicaid, from Transportation to State Parks and Criminal Justice — moved to the House this week with the Senate’s passage of its budget. As a co-chair of the House Education Appropriations Committee, my primary responsibility for the next two weeks will be putting forward the education portion of the House’s budget: K through 12, Community Colleges, and the University of North Carolina System.
While I met with two educators a few weekends ago, except for that meeting, I’ve not had any recent meetings or requests for meetings from Henderson County residents to talk about the education budget. What has been surprising to me is how little input I’ve gotten from my constituents about the part of the budget that I actually have some ability to influence. I’ve heard from parents and teachers from across the state, but I’ve received less than a dozen communications from parents and teachers in Henderson County.
So what are the big issues in the education budgets put forward by Governor McCrory and the Senate? Some of the issues are similar for each of the three parts of the budget. For example, there is a real desire to implement some sort of “pay for performance” at each educational level, but how does one evaluate the effectiveness of teachers or faculty members? Debate rages over standardized testing. Some want testing to provide the basis for determining whether teachers are effective, but other argue that too much time is spent on testing or that testing really doesn’t account for the disparities that exist between different students coming to the schools from different backgrounds. Here’s a short list of the most discussed issues:
Both the Governor and the Senate have cut funds for Teacher Assistants. The cut in the Governor’s budget is $117 million for FY 13-14, while the Senate’s cut is $142 million. The North Carolina Association of Educators says that the Senate budget cuts over 4,000 teacher assistants from the classroom, but that statement doesn’t tell the whole story. While the state budget will allocate monies to the local school boards for teacher salaries, textbooks, supplies and equipment, teacher assistants, transportation, and a range of other things, North Carolina School Boards actually have a lot of flexibility in moving monies from one account to another. Thus, one really can’t tell if cuts are made to an allotment for teaching assistants whether the local school boards will simply make up those cuts by shifting monies. Looking back to the budgets for FY 11-12 and FY 12-13, most school boards actually cut teaching assistant positions when forced to make choices between different funding options.
NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT)
NCCAT is a professional development program for teachers that offers programs in technology and digital literacy, teacher leadership, and early grade literacy among other things. In the last budget, monies for NCCAT were cut by 50%, and both the Governor and the Senate have removed the remaining appropriations. Recently, my colleagues and I have received hundreds of emails and telephone calls from teachers across the state about NCCAT.
The Senate’s budget includes no pay raise for teachers, and the Governor has proposed a 1% pay raise. Teachers’ pay has remained flat for the last five years. In the last budget, a decision was made to include enough money so that school boards didn’t have to fire teachers, and teachers (and other public employees) got a 1% pay raise. While there were predictions of mass layoffs the last two years, the actual layoffs were minimal. For me, the bigger question is why anyone would choose the teaching profession if they know that they can expect almost no salary increases? A young person who becomes a teacher after five years will look around and see his or her peers either making more money in another profession or making more money as a teacher in another state.
Textbooks, Instructional Supplies and Equipment
While the Governor added some monies to these budget categories, the Senate made a small cut in instructional supplies and materials. It might seem that these cuts would be major issues, but again the ability of local school boards to move money from one spending category to another makes the debate over exactly how much money is allocated to any one spending category rather silly. Prior to the legislative session, I met with a group of Henderson County educators and was very surprised to learn that schools shared textbooks, going so far as to keep kids from taking textbooks home for fear that they might not make it back to school. I naively thought that the problem had to be with the textbook allotment, but that was not completely the problem. Yes, more money could have been allocated for textbooks, but in an effort to make a required Flex Cut most school boards were quick to cut textbooks rather than teachers.
LEA Flexibility Adjustment
The so-called “Flex Cut” has been viewed as one of the most controversial parts of the budget. Over the past five years, the Legislature decided that, if cuts needed to be made, it would be better for the local school boards to make them rather than those cuts being mandated by the legislature. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Knowing that cuts need to be made, let the people with the most knowledge of the individual school budgets make the budget decisions. Why should Raleigh decide what cuts should be made in Henderson County? Well, what started out as a good idea that was never intended to be part of the budget over several budget cycles has now become a real headache. People don’t understand why the legislature is giving the school boards money, and then taking back some part of that money. In response to this, the Senate is proposing to eliminate the Flex Cut, but the problem with that is to eliminate it the Senate has had to cut monies allocated to classroom teachers, instructional support personnel, along with instructional supplies and materials. That sounds like a real bad decision, right? Well, the Senate’s cuts simply mirror the cuts that the various school boards actually made in the last budget cycle. So it isn’t exactly what it seems.
Community College Enrollment Funding Change
Currently, community colleges are funded based on the higher of the prior year’s actual enrollment or the three-year average enrollment. Both the Governor and the Senate shift the three-year average to a two-year average resulting in a nearly $20 million reduction in funding for community colleges. Of course, this funding formula changes affects community colleges differently. My understanding is that this change doesn’t negatively impact Blue Ridge Community College, so this proposed cut is not a difficult one for me to accept.
UNC Flexibility Adjustment
Similar to the issue with the state’s school boards, the University System has a management flexibility reduction for the UNC operating budget. Again, the struggle is between letting the UNC Board make needed cuts or to allow the General Assembly to make the necessary cuts.
UNC Need-Based Financial Aid
One of the serious issues with recent budgets has been that the funding of financial aid has been out of sync with the budget cycle. In other words, the UNC system has to make financial aid commitments at a point in time when it doesn’t know how much money will be appropriated by the General Assembly. The Senate has finally addressed this issue by “forward funding” a reserve that can be used for this financial aid.
This is just an overview of a small range of the issues in the education budgets put forward by the Governor and the Senate. In the next two weeks, the House will put forth its budget and then negotiations will begin between the three parties to reach agreement on a compromise that can muster majority support in the legislature and the support of the Governor.
And I’ve only outlined part of the budget puzzle. Every day I’m contacted by constituents worried about other parts of the budget. Some constituents worry about the funding of group homes for the disabled or mentally impaired, while hunters contact me to say that we aren’t adequately funding the Wildlife Resources Commission. I hear a fair amount about the need to fund Pre-K education and how the State isn’t doing enough to address a crisis in our mental health system. I hear almost no suggestions as to cuts that need to be made, and I can’t remember anyone suggesting that we need to raise taxes, or fees, or tuition.
Of course, while the budget is the being crafted in the House, the Senate is now getting back to regular business. Two of my local bills, HB545 (Modify Henderson County Occupancy Tax) and HB671 (Mills River Deannexation), got favorable recommendations from the Senate Finance Committee and will soon be voted on by the full Senate. As soon as I become free, I need to get working on my other bills that have passed over to the Senate, because once the budget negotiations are complete it will be only a week or so before we adjourn the Long Session.