By Scott Mooneyham
Wednesday, August 21, 2013 —
RALEIGH — In the aftermath of this year’s legislative session, public education supporters and GOP lawmakers have been fighting to define the narrative about what the legislature did or didn’t do to public education.
That legislators made a number of significant policy changes affecting the public schools, including eliminating teacher tenure and allowing vouchers for private schooling, is not in dispute.
What those changes mean for the future is.
Teachers’ groups say the changes will undermine public school funding and cause good teachers to leave the profession; advocates of the changes say they will give parents more options and allow schools to fire bad teachers.
The bigger battle involves the state budget, its funding of education and what that will mean for the public schools moving forward.
Education officials and teachers argue that schools will not only be forced to eliminate teaching assistant jobs, as called for in the budget, but also teaching positions and other services.
GOP legislators who helped craft the budget call the predictions of calamity more of the same carping from the education establishment and Democrats. They point to figures showing education spending rising by almost 4 percent, even while a separate comparison including inflation and student enrollment shows a 2-percent cut.
The numbers may not support some pending calamity. They do show that North Carolina has entered a slow slog of less support for public education.
The left and right have been battling over comparisons between spending levels from the past two years.
Looking at the numbers over a longer horizon provides a more unsettling picture.
Prior to the Great Recession, in the 2007-08 fiscal year, North Carolina legislators budgeted $7.71 billion for the public schools, $2.63 billion for the public universities and $938 million for the community colleges.
Six years later, state support for the public schools is $7.87 billion, or $154 million more; public universities $2.58 billion, or $43 million less; and community colleges $1.02 billion, or $83 million more.
Setting aside the issue of rising enrollment, just an examination of inflation shows the extent of the funding slide.
That $7.71 billion in 2007 dollars for K-12 is the equivalent of $8.69 billion today, or $820 million less than public schools are now receiving. The $2.62 billion in 2007 dollars to the public universities is the equivalent of $2.96 billion in current dollars, or $374 million less than they are now receiving. One reduction would equal almost 10 percent, the other over 10 percent.
Republican legislators point out that most of those cuts took place before they took power in 2011. That’s true.
But the Democratic-penned budgets that preceded them, in 2009 and 2010, had federal stimulus dollars to backfill the cuts.
The federal money ran out a couple of years ago. GOP lawmakers have chosen to put only a portion of recovering tax collections toward restoring public education budgets.
The chickens have come home to roost.
The sky may not be falling, but the squawking is hardly confined to the Chicken Littles.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist for Capitol Press Association and covers activities of the N.C. Legislature.