Earlier this week House and Senate Democrats began a state wide budget tour to criticize the Republican-authored state budget and job losses in state government and the public schools. Democrat law makers, local officials and individuals directly impacted by budget cuts dutifully showed up at various stops to criticize policies and plead for more money. While media coverage reported plenty of criticism and hand-wringing the only item that seemed to be in short supply was the truth.
Democrats criticized cuts to public education as too large and acted as if public school budget reductions are virtually unprecedented.. Last week in Raleigh, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison said “For the first time since the Great Depression, North Carolina’s General Assembly has adopted a budget that sends education backward.”
Is Harrison right? Assuming Harrison is referring to state funding for public K-12 education, there are two simple ways to answer this question; review changes in the level of overall public support and public support per student.
A quick glance of historical tables shows that overall public support for K-12 education actually declined five times since 1983 and most recently in 2008-09 when it declined by 3 percent or $267 million below the previous year.
A better indicator for gauging support for public education is support per student. It’s regarded as a better indicator because it takes into account changing student populations. So what do trend lines in support per student tell us? Since 1982-83, there have been seven years when the level of state support per student was less than the previous year. Percentage declines have ranged from 0.5 percent to 5.9 percent.
Thus, in reality the current fluctuations in total K-12 support and per student support is far from unprecedented.
It’s hard to miss Democrat indignation at the impact of Republican budget reductions. It seems that outrage is on display at each budget stop. The only problem is the outrage is selective and disingenuous.
While it is true public schools absorbed staffing reductions this year, schools were also asked to absorb staff cuts in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Last I checked, Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the Governor’s office in all three of those years. During those years, Democrats eliminated a combined 10,761 education positions and laid off close to 3,700 public school staff.
Yet where was the outcry from teachers or Democrats about job losses? According to the Department of Public Instruction, 534 teachers will lose their jobs in 2011-12 to budget cuts. However in the three previous years (2008, 2009 and 2010) close to three times the current number (1,580) of teachers lost their jobs due to budget reductions.
Much of the controversy surrounding the budget discussion focuses on job loss numbers released in August by the Department of Public Instruction. According to the document, over the past four years, more than 17,100 public school positions have been eliminated and over 6,100 staff laid off.
While those numbers are certainly significant and involve real people, it must be noted that there are substantive concerns about the validity of the job loss numbers. Three are worth mentioning. First, the survey results are for self-reported data only, DPI does not provide any means to objectively assess the validity of the survey results. Second, because most schools continue to hire school personnel through September, the numbers of layoffs and positions eliminated will be less than reported on the August surveys. Third and finally, when you compare the results of the DPI job loss data with employment surveys in other DPI documents there are significant discrepancies in staffing numbers.
Even with all that said, it’s important to ask: How significant are public school job losses for the upcoming year? If all laid off public school employees (2,418.1) were divided among all K-12 schools (2,424 — charter schools were not included in the survey) each school would lose less than one (.99) employee.
Is the impact of budget reductions felt more deeply in larger districts? An analysis of job losses in the twenty largest LEAs reveals that on average LEAs will eliminate 166 positions and lay off 70 staff. The 20 LEAs laid off a total of 264 teachers, with almost half of those coming from one district (Cumberland). Interestingly, 13 of the 20 largest LEAs reported no teacher layoffs for 2011-12. For the twenty largest LEAs, layoffs as a percentage of LEA work force averaged 1.05 percent.
Of course Democrat leaders have every right to meet with constituents and share views on policy differences. However, is it unrealistic to ask that those views involve accurate numbers and a realistic assessment of policy impacts?