RALEIGH — North Carolina could lose more than 5,300 teachers and all public school classes would be larger under a proposal for education cuts prepared for Gov. Bev Perdue's budget office.
The state Department of Public Instruction was the first large state agency to release its budget cut proposal in response to a request by The News & Observer last week. Funding for public education through 12th grade consumes about 40 percent of the state's budget.
Perdue's budget office asked state education agencies to suggest both 5 percent and 10 percent cuts as the state prepares for an expected $3.5 billion budget hole next year. The state will lose more than $1 billion when temporary sales taxes and income tax surcharges expire. The federal stimulus money that helped pay Medicaid and education expenses also will evaporate.
Agencies outside education were asked to suggest cuts of up to 15 percent.
Five percent of the K-12 budget is $396 million. But because a cut of $304 million is already built into the public education budget, schools would have to come up with a $701 million cut. A 10 percent cut is worth $701 million, or $1.1 billion when the recurring cut is added.
Even at 5 percent, the state would employ fewer teachers and class sizes would increase. In the first two years of recessionary budgets, the state set its funding to keep K-3 classes at 18 students. That would increase to 19 under the proposal.
Teacher assistants would be hit hard in both scenarios. A 10 percent cut would eliminate more than 13,000 positions, with the state paying only for enough assistants to work in kindergarten classrooms.
The proposal cuts all staff development and school technology money. But the state will still have teacher training and computers because it is getting millions from a federal Race to the Top grant to pay for those initiatives.
Earlier this week, Perdue warned members of the N.C. School Boards Association to brace for more education cuts. Mark Johnson, Perdue's spokesman, said Friday that he had not seen DPI's proposal and couldn't comment on it.
This is the earliest stage of state budgeting, and it is unlikely that all suggestions will make it into the proposal Perdue sends the legislature next year, much less the final plan lawmakers approve in the summer. Perdue is expected to announce a government consolidation plan after Thanksgiving that will serve as something of a budget preview.
Cuts may be eased
Preliminary education budgets often show hefty teacher cuts, but those often end up less severe than as first presented. Last year, an early Senate budget proposed to increase class sizes by two students in all grades, and House members toyed with making the school year shorter. Neither of those things happened.
Not all teacher losses mean layoffs. Districts in the past have found ways to reduce teaching staff through retirements and attrition rather than massive job cuts.
The new Republican-led legislature is going to take a different approach to budgeting by asking departments to justify all their spending as if they've never received money for any program.
Scott Anderson, executive director of the N.C. Association of Educators, said cutting teachers will hurt students and the state.
"They're not going to solve our jobs problems by laying off thousands of teachers," he said.
Classes overfilled now
Though the DPI calculations show class sizes increasing from one to three students, depending on the grade, classes are already bigger than the state says they ought to be, Anderson said.
"There's not a parent out there with children in K-3 who are in a class with only 18 kids," he said.
In the information prepared on education budgets, DPI officials calculated that getting rid of their entire department and all state funding for local school district central office and school administrators would save less than $500 million. Critics of school spending often point to layers of administration. The budget illustration was meant to show that even if state funding were cut for every school administration job, it still wouldn't get to $1 billion, said Philip Price, DPI's chief financial officer.
Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican nominee for Senate leader, said he wants to see what DPI prepared, but that it is just an early proposal.
"We're interested in taking a whole new look at how we put the budget together," he said. "It's certainly a process, and we need to solicit feedback and input from a wide variety of folks."
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