I will not sacrifice our children’s future. I will not eliminate teachers whose job it is to build that future and the future of our state.
Governor Beverly Perdue, State of the State Speech, February 14,2011
With this statement the Governor drew a line in the sand and said her budget will not reduce funding for state-funded teachers or teacher assistants.
The Governor also decided to take a political approach to education spending and ignored the opportunity to fundamentally restructure the current dysfunctional way k-12 education is funded and administered in North Carolina.
The Governor’s words have garnered praise from education groups. Her budget walls off public education from other state agencies. Public schools under the Governor’s budget are cut by approximately 3.9 percent, whereas budgets for other state agencies have reductions ranging from 7 to 15 percent. The Governor’s decisions also reflect the source of her major political support (teachers) and her overall support from the education community.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the Governor’s rhetoric about public education contrasts with the reality that her budget also makes significant cuts to non-instructional staff and pushed many additional costs to local counties.
The job reductions she does propose include the loss of 1,700 non-instructional support personnel and 1,900 transportation positions. The Governor’s budget asks counties to absorb another $97 million in costs. This includes ($57 million for school bus replacement;; $35 million for worker compensation costs $35 million and $5 million for tort claims for school bus accidents. .
In addition, the Governor’s budget also asks counties to find another $200 million in cutbacks. The Governor’s plan takes away both the county portion of lottery proceeds and the county share of corporate income tax proceeds, which are specifically designated for local school construction.
The personnel reductions and decision to eliminate education personnel and shift additional costs to the counties is a calculated political gambit. By local governments screaming that they simply don’t have enough money to fund their education needs, Perdue hopes to achieve her real goal: additional funding for the public schools. The governor’s decision reveals her diagnosis of the problem: There simply isn’t enough money.
Considering the current budget crisis, business as usual is not an acceptable option – or the right option. Perdue’s gamble only delays the hard choices and self evaluation that difficult budget times should produce. A far better option is to provide local communities the means and resources necessary to address the challenges facing local schools. One option for doing so is education block grants.
While many will think this a radical idea, it is not a new idea. Last year, the Legislature passed a temporary provision which gave school districts more flexibility in how they can use state monies. For example, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) could convert personnel positions to dollars to be used for other purposes. For example, positions designated as assistant principals can be converted to teachers or converted for funds for supplies.
The flexibility provision absolved state lawmakers from having to make tough decisions about personnel cuts. It also recognized a tried and true principle of government: those closest to the problem are best able to understand and develop solutions to problems.
This budget session brings stark realities. No matter whose budget is adopted, there will be cuts to public schools. That said; why not provide LEAs with block grants that allow local districts the flexibility and resources to manage their own budget and spending decisions?
The case for flexibility is rooted not only in local needs but also in how North Carolina finances its public schools. To its credit the Legislature has been reviewing the current system for financing public schools. Not surprisingly, increased flexibility is one of the themes that emerged from the final report of the Joint Legislative Study Committee of Public School Funding Formulas.
In brief, North Carolina distributes funds to the public schools on the basis of allotments. There are three basic types of allotments; position allotments (i.e., teachers, school building administrators, instructional support staff etc.); dollar allotments (i.e. teacher assistants, central office administration) and categorical allotments (money provided to purchase necessary services such as transportation, professional development etc.). While there are numerous allotments — approximately 23 in all – the overwhelming majority of resources (about 98 percent) are distributed through only a few personnel-related allotments.
Standardization and equity are two of the values behind allotments. Unfortunately, the process also conveys a level of precision (i.e. control or management) abhorred by those who favor local control of our schools. Did you know Local Education Agencies receive 1 teacher position for every 22 students in grades 4 through 6 and that the average class size is 26? Or, that the state provides 1 building principal for every school with at least 100 students or 7 state-paid teachers? Or LEAs receive $1,173.79 per child for four percent of Average Daily Membership (ADM) – whether the LEA needs it or not? The allotment formulas go on and on, and on.
Yes, some allotments incorporate LEA averages. Still, behind all the formulas is a one-size-fits-all approach to education that belies the great variation in districts, staff personnel and student populations. We all know that costs and schools vary from place to place. Nor do all schools have the same problems. So why do we try to treat them all the same way?
Because lawmakers control the formulas and how dollars are distributed, allotments help lawmakers and state government keep control over the public schools. The year-to-year “tinkering” with various formulas elevates the importance of political actors in decision-making. It also makes it difficult for school districts to do long term planning – precisely what is needed in the current situation.
The current teacher allotment system – which accounts for approximately 40 percent of state funds appropriated to public schools – is a powerful argument for providing local LEAs more flexibility in managing the current budget crisis and improving budgeting and delivery of services going forward.
The current “teacher allotment” requires the state to provide for state-approved teacher student ratios and class sizes at each grade level. The system is cumbersome, expensive and ignores the great differences in schools across North Carolina. Because the costs of most teachers are paid by the state, local governments have no incentive to control costs. There is a built-in bias for teachers with higher levels of education and credentialing, while virtually ignoring actual performance or results. Furthermore, the current system fails to take into consideration the full effect of cost pressures, student characteristics and differences in local economies. Salary supplements and escalating costs are evidence that the system doesn’t work.
Gov. Perdue’s proposal imperils local education budgets in hopes of generating more financial support for the public schools. What LEAs need is more flexibility to address the current budget crisis.
Instead of designing allotments for nearly every type of personnel or program, why not provide education block grants? Such grants can help LEAs pay for classroom costs such as teachers, teacher assistants, and classroom materials all out of one fund? Why not create administrator and support personnel grants to allow LEAs to fund personnel at the level they need and allow them to keep the difference? Why not combine all categorical programs into one block grant and give LEAs flexibility over how to distribute monies based on local needs?
Of course LEAs are still held accountable for how they use monies under an educational block grant program. Since education block grants transfer policy and spending decisions to the local level, local officials will enjoy more say into meeting current budget challenges. How can we expect principals to lead when they lack sufficient authority over budgets, appointments and determining school priorities?
Times are difficult. But tough times also provide opportunities to improve efficiency and management. Block grants, if structured properly, can help to do that. Education block grants put local communities in charge of their own spending, allow communities to better meet unique student, staff and district needs and eliminate the built-in incentives that have propelled education costs.
Thankfully, in recent years, districts have been gaining more flexibility in how to spend public school funds. Hopefully that flexibility grows and remains after the current crisis passes. It will improve local control and accountability.