This article originally appeared in the Lincoln Tribune on May 29, 2009.
One of the most significant budget battles taking place in the General Assembly this year involves K-12 education. This year most of the budget discussion revolves around how to manage next year’s education budget shortfall, which is currently hovering around $930 million.
Some of the most prominent budget cuts recommended by House education budget writers include eliminating third grade teacher assistants (savings: $130 million), increasing class size by two students (savings: $322.7 million) and shortening the school year by five days in 2009 ($100 million) and 10 days in 2010.
Interestingly, the proposal to alter the school schedule seems to have been a tipping point of sorts. Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) introduced the proposal to shorten the school year last week. However, in order to meet state law regarding instructional hours, Glazier also recommended schools lengthen the school day. Not surprisingly, Glazier’s proposals fueled a torrent of criticism from teachers and administrators. Soon the North Carolina Education Association (NCAE), the largest teachers union in the state was in full “war mode” trying to “save jobs” and fend off the House’s draconian cuts. In addition, NCAE is scheduled to release a poll that reveals strong support for tax increases to support public education.
Earlier this week, House budget writers dropped the requirement to shorten the school year by five days. Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Madison), House education sub-committee co-chairman, raised the possibility that teacher furloughs may be part of the final budget package. If so, local school districts would be closed for those days.
Glazier and Rapp aren’t dumb. My guess is both knew teachers – one of the Democratic Party’s primary constituencies – would never accept the House’s proposals to change the school schedule and eliminate teacher jobs. The dramatic and strategic cuts proved an effective tool in energizing teachers to lobby for more revenue for public education – in my mind, the Democrats real goal.
Making big cuts conveys urgency, but the actions aren’t necessarily tethered to reality. NCAE’s quest to “save jobs” sounds good coming from a union, much less so when you realize those interests don’t intersect with those of our schools and students. Still if you consider salary and benefits account for about 90 percent of all state operating expenditures for education, job losses are inevitable.
Though teachers and educators will fight every step of the way, the K-12 public school system is big enough to absorb cuts in support staff. Consider, since 2001, enrollment has increased 15 percent. Meanwhile the number of teachers has increased 19 percent and the number of instructional support personnel (e.g., guidance counselors, psychologists, librarians) has actually increased 30 percent. The imbalance between budgets for instructional support ($357 million) and noninstructional support ($403 million) reflects how more and more dollars have been moving away from traditional classroom functions. At the end of 2008, there were nearly 13,800 instructional support positions in schools and LEAs across North Carolina, up from 10,600 seven years earlier. Simply put, such staffing patterns are not sustainable.
Over the past 15 years, billions has been invested in K-12 public education; much of it for new programs and support staff. Since most of the additional staff is outside the classroom, reductions can be made with minimal disruption to actual instruction.
Categorical programs are another area where lawmakers might look for significant savings. Categorical programs make up about 27 percent of the total K-12 budget and account for $2.3 billion in spending. Programs like At-Risk Student Services, Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Funding, Limited English Proficiency and Low Wealth have laudable goals. However there is often considerable overlap in program goals, targeted populations and outcomes. Combining or eliminating some of these programs would be much-needed efficiencies and produce millions in savings.
How do you develop an education budget more than $900 million short of original estimates? Our conservative principles tell us to look for efficiencies, eliminate waste and you respond to the public sentiment.
And here the public sentiment couldn’t be clearer. In July 2008, 59 percent of North Carolina registered voters polled think taxes are too high for the level of government services they receive (Civitas Institute Decision Maker Poll). Moreover, in early January of this year, the same poll found that when registered voters were asked how state government should address the looming state budget deficit: raise taxes or cut existing programs, 68 percent of respondents said cut existing programs – only 16 percent recommended raising taxes (Civitas Decision Maker Poll, January 2009).
Let’s hope lawmakers follow the good sense of North Carolinians and do the right thing.