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The GOP targets public education for deep cuts 

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In Room 643, the vast committee room on the top floor of the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, it was last rites for the Democratic Party's control of education policy in North Carolina. Both co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee, Democrats Doug Yongue of Scotland County and Tony Foriest of Alamance County, had been swept from office in the Republican landslide Nov. 2, making the atmosphere close to funereal as the committee met briefly last week to wrap up its business. "Real changes in the way we do business," Sen. Foriest said, will be coming under Republican control.

Rep. Ray Rapp, a Madison County Democrat and retired Mars Hill College dean, asked that the committee go on record in favor of, above all, protecting education funding as the GOP slashes spending to close a $3.7 billion budget gap for fiscal 2010–11. "We cannot eat our seed corn," Rapp said.

Several Democrats joined Rapp in expressing the hope that Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman, a retired public school administrator from Randolph County and part of the new Senate leadership team, would put his lineman-size body in the way of severe education cuts.

Tillman, said Sen. Bob Atwater, D-Chatham, "is a big man in more ways than one."

The unanimous vote—Tillman's included—to adopt Rapp's motion had the effect of whistling past the graveyard.

Including the university and community college systems, Tillman reminded reporters when the meeting ended, public education accounts for 60 percent of state spending, and 90 percent of education spending is for personnel—people's jobs, that is. His point: There's no way the Republicans can keep their campaign promises to balance the 2010–11 budget, avoid a tax increase and not whack education spending. "There's going to be pain, and there's going to be lots of pain," Tillman said.

Tillman wouldn't predict how large the cuts will be or whether they'll fall harder on university budgets than on K–12 aid and preschool education. "I don't know," he said in answer to the latter question, "but I know that public schools can't raise tuitions and universities can."

Increasing tuition at the state's 16 university campuses is a pet idea of the conservative organizations funneling talking points—and staffers—to the new Republican regime in Raleigh. Groups including the John Locke Foundation, the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina and others funded generously by wealthy Republican businessman Art Pope have churned out a laundry list of ways to cut education budgets.

All amount to variations on a common theme: Cut public (i.e., taxpayer's) support for schools in general, but allow parents, if they can afford it, to give extra money to their own children's schools.

That's the idea behind the Republican push for more charter schools and for supplying vouchers in the form of tax credits to parents who send their children to private K–12 schools.

Neither idea, however, will save much money, and in fact, any voucher plan would cost additional funds if students already in private schools or being homeschooled were eligible, according to Brian Lewis, government relations chief for the N.C. Association of Educators.

Lewis maintains that voucher bills previously sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul (Skip) Stam of Wake County, ostensibly limited to students with "special needs," were loose enough that almost any homeschooling parent could've made the case that his or her child was special—and eligible. Stam has said that his legislation would save the state money by helping parents pay to transfer their expensive special-needs kids from public schools to private ones.

Previously, it was an academic argument, since the Democrats who ran the General Assembly opposed vouchers in any form. In the new General Assembly, however, Stam is in line to be the House majority leader. Now it matters.

The conservative critique of public education, contained in a Civitas report called "A+ Kids: An Education Blueprint for N.C.," begins with the charge that the public schools are failing, especially for needy kids and the brightest kids. Test results show it, Civitas argues, as well as North Carolina's 72 percent graduation rate for high school kids. The answer, conservatives say, is to support private- and charter-school competition and force the public schools to compete for parents' support—and funding.

One hole in that analysis, as another report revealed ("Race to the Bottom," issued by the Public School Forum of North Carolina last month), is that state support for K–12 education is already low, ranking 42nd among the 50 states.

At $8,743 per student (2008–09 figures), North Carolina's spending—counting federal, state and local funds—was half that of first-place Rhode Island's. Cutting the state's share, the forum warned, could drop North Carolina to 49th or 50th place—the bottom.

But cuts are what the Republicans have in mind. "Anything can change," Tillman said, but as the GOP takes power, "the commitment is" to avoid tax increases. That could mean cuts to school budgets of as much as 20 percent, he added, since the total budget hole is between 15 percent and 20 percent of current state spending.

Republican campaign platforms also pledged to "protect the classroom" and aim cuts at school administrators and officials at the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

According to the DPI, however, even if every single state and local school official were fired, the savings would amount to just $150 million—far less than would be needed to chop 15 percent from state aid for K–12. Fire every school principal and assistant principal, DPI reported, and it would add just $328 million more in savings.

DPI's point: To reduce the state's current K–12 spending of nearly $8 billion by 15 percent, cuts totaling $1.2 billion would be necessary; and even if every last dollar spent on school administrators, books and classroom materials (including tests) were eliminated, the total savings would be less than $700 million—or $500 million short of the mark. Thousands of teachers and teaching assistants would have to be fired, too, if the cuts go that deep.

The Republicans' solution, Tillman said, may be to simply make their cuts and deliver, say, $7 billion or less to local school districts with no strings attached. That would leave them free to fire teachers or cut their pay regardless of experience and salary schedules. "If you had total freedom" at the local level, you'd make that money go a lot further," he said.

It's Republican dogma that good teachers should be paid more than others, with some deployed to schools with high-poverty student populations. The block-grant approach that Tillman described would enable such moves, but of course they wouldn't save money. Not without, as the NCAE's Lewis exclaimed, "Dismantling the salary schedule? Oh, we're talking huge pay cuts if that happens."

Lewis predicted, though, that Republican budget writers will learn "that K–12 education is about as lean as you can get" and not reducible without eliminating teachers' jobs and pushing up class sizes to levels that the GOP won't find defensible. The NCAE isn't asking Republicans to renege on their no-tax hike pledge, he added. Not yet. It is asking them to examine $5 billion worth of tax loopholes that, if closed, would fix the budget problems without blasting education.

One Republican change that's seen as inevitable is lifting the cap on charter schools. State law limits the total number of such schools to 100. Even the NCAE, though, realizes the cap is dead. The group said Friday that it can support lifting it, but Lewis said the rules on charter schools should be reformed as well.

Currently, charter schools receive state aid equal to other public schools, except that there is no money for a building, for transportation or school meals. These expenses are left to parents or other school backers. The upshot, progressive critics say, is that some charters set up shop in affluent areas where parents take the state aid and add to it, running the schools as if they're private. Low-income kids can apply (and if there are more applicants than seats, by law a lottery must be used). But without transportation, low-income kids don't apply.

Meanwhile, other charters set up by parents in low-income communities as an alternative to the often-dismal public schools there, are underfunded and racially segregated. Charters, by law, are supposed to "provide racial/ ethnic balance in their student enrollments," and if they don't, a state advisory committee "shall investigate." According to DPI's website, however, the advisory committee, never active, was formally disbanded in 2007.

"Are [the charter schools] black and white? Yeah," Lewis said, adding that funding for transportation and meals should be provided and integration standards applied. "It's a hole in the law."

  • "There's going to be pain, and there's going to be lots of pain."

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