Shell game for schools

Final budget not likely to be pro education.

By Chris Fitzsimon

[7.09.04] — The General Assembly session plods on, now two weeks into the new state fiscal year, as legislative leaders work behind closed doors to reach a final budget agreement.

Much has been written about the woefully inadequate funding for human service programs that provide mental health services, day care, and lifesaving AIDS drugs for people who can’t afford them.  More should be written.

What has received far less attention is the likelihood that the final budget will include budget cuts for local schools and will ignore the order of Superior Court Judge Howard Manning to find more resources to help the state’s poorest school districts.

The House and Senate have reportedly agreed to Gov. Mike Easley’s request for $50 million to reduce class size in the third grade and $9 million for his More at Four preschool program.

That has politicians and pundits hailing the budget as a pro-education plan protecting the state’s commitment to public schools.

But part of the money to pay for Easley’s programs will come from a $27 million cut in state funding of local school systems, which is in addition to the $44 million the General Assembly already had demanded the schools cut this year. That means schools will be forced to cut $71 million from their operating budgets and will receive only $50 million to reduce class size.

The final budget is also not likely to include any money to address Manning’s ruling in the Leandro case that orders the state to do more to make sure poor students receive their constitutionally guaranteed sound, basic education.

Manning has become impatient with the state’s foot dragging in addressing his order but praised a recent proposal by the State Board of Education to spend $22 million to help 16 poor school districts.

The House budget includes no money for the State Board’s plan and the Senate budget allocated $12 million. But reports from the backrooms say the final budget agreement will have no money for the proposal.

It all translates into more than misleading rhetoric from legislative leaders and Gov. Mike Easley. It means that virtually every school system in North Carolina will have to reduce its budget and many are currently struggling with deficits already.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina figured out how much each school system loses –Mecklenburg County $1.9 million, Wake County $1.8 million, Guilford County $1 million. Smaller systems lose less but their budgets are far smaller so the cuts are still a burden. For instance, Burke County is struggling with a $1.3 million deficit and officials estimate that the final budget may require the system to cut another $750,000.

None of those numbers take into account how local school systems will be able to afford to build the new classrooms needed for the smaller classes.

That is hardly a pro-education budget. It appears to be a political shell game, designed more for sound bites in speeches and 30-second television ads than to help improve the education of our children.

Our kids deserve better.

Chris Fitzsimon is director of NC Policy Watch, a program of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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