“It’s time for the Republican legislators to stop deluding themselves about the adequacy of their funding for public education.”
Winston Salem Journal Editorial, November 15, 2011
That’s the reckless accusation of editors at the Winston-Salem Journal (WSJ) who assail Republican legislators in an editorial for slashing public school budgets, punting tough decisions to locals and leaving schools on precarious financial footing.
But what does the evidence reveal about such charges?
This year North Carolina is spending $7.4 billion on K-12 education, or $380 million more than last year. Even with the budget reductions of the last two years, actual spending is still up 25 percent since 2001.
How much did the education budget impact personnel? Editors charge that Republicans failed to protect the classroom. The fact is, the budget approved by lawmakers fully funds classroom teachers. In addition, it adds an additional $60 million in funds each of the next two years to hire 1,100 teachers and reduce the student teacher ratio in lower grades.
This year’s education budget, however, does reduce allotments for “instructional personnel” (e.g. guidance counselors, social workers, media specialists, etc.) by five percent. This year North Carolina is still spending $435 million on instructional personnel. In 2012 the budget for such employees increases to $439.9 million. But this reduction follows nearly a decade of expansive growth. Between 2000 and 2009 nearly 35,000 new public school employees were added. Over the period, ADM enrollment increased 17 percent but staff increased 22 percent. When the economic slowdown hit, the numbers were simply unsustainable.
Without a doubt, educators hardest hit by the budget include non-instructional staff whose allotments were reduced by 15 percent ($59 million) to help fully fund teachers. Yet even with the reductions we shouldn’t forget that this year, North Carolina will spend $337 million on non-instructional personnel and $340 million in 2012-13. Again from 2000 to 2009 the number of noninstructional support personnel – as measured by non-certified staff (i.e. teacher assistants, clerical/secretarial, technicians, etc.) – increased by 10,600 staff, an increase of approximately 18 percent. The recession led to over 6,000 noninstructional staff layoffs. However even with the layoffs, overall noninstructional personnel levels are still up 8 percent from 2000
Are Republicans “punting” the tough budget decisions to locals? Let’s just say we have a difference of opinion on this one. To ensure local budget reductions are carried out as uniformly as possible, Republican lawmakers recently departed from their own principle of local control and approved a provision that puts the State Board of Education, not local boards, in charge of how local school board budget reductions are made.
Editors have mistakenly defined the current problems as a revenue shortfall. Actual data presents a different picture, however, as public education spending has swelled by 40 percent over the past ten years, and per pupil expenditures has risen from $3,413 in 1996 to $4,842, an increase of 42 percent. This dramatic spending increase has not translated into improved results. Today three out of 10 students drop out of school; 25 percent of students fail to graduate in four years, and high percentages of students lack proficiency in basic skills.
Editors lay all the blame on state officials for the budget problems while conveniently forgetting that about 25 percent of school budgets come from local sources. Most communities have opted for layoffs rather than to raise taxes to address their budgetary issues.
From 2000 to 2009, overall school staffing increased by 22 percent while school enrollment only increased by 17 percent. When the economy slowed in 2009, staff reductions were made without dramatically impacting the classroom. Stimulus money helped to keep many staff employed, yet provisions also prohibited states from making spending cuts. Stimulus money may have helped temporarily, however it is the major reason politicians pushed off difficult budget decisions into the future and why the current funding cliff is so steep.
An August 31 Department of Public Instruction (DPI) press release declaring public schools have cut eight percent of staff since 2008-09 sent the press into a frenzy and propelled a flurry of stories about educator job losses, including the WSJ. What’s disturbing is that most papers failed to report that the DPI job loss figures couldn’t be validated, failed to account for natural turnover in positions when making estimates and didn’t distinguish job losses by source or funding.
The school job loss numbers were parroted around the state, but the passage of time has revealed a different story. An analysis of the 20 largest Local Education Agencies (LEAs) in North Carolina finds that 12 of the top 20 LEAs laid off no teachers this fall. Furthermore, layoffs as a percentage of total workforce for the 20 largest LEAs were only 1.65 percent. At a November budget hearing the Office of State Budget Management and Administration reported that as of November 1, only 516 LEA employees had requested severance benefits from the state. Of course that number does not reflect all actual job losses. However, it would suggest that educator job losses will reach nowhere near the 20,000-30,000 Democrats had predicted earlier in the year.
WSJ editors would have a more compelling argument about the impact of budget cuts were their arguments supported by the facts. That said, it makes you wonder – who is delusional?