Rock bottom

The state Senate's stance on North Carolina's public school budget is simply unacceptable.

May 12, 2011 

Beverly Perdue is, her spokeswoman says, "shocked, disappointed, disgusted."

The governor should be all that and more. The reckless cuts to the state's K-12 education budget now being sought by the state Senate amount to a betrayal of North Carolina's aspirations to be a better place to live and work. If Perdue does one thing during the remainder of the legislative session, it should be to veto any education funding bill that cuts so deeply.

Many distracting, in-your-face bills generated by political gamesmanship have emerged from this year's General Assembly, the first legislative session dominated by Republicans in over a century. But this issue is different. This is rock-bottom - our schoolchildren and the money to educate them. This one is worth an all-out fight.

The House version of the education budget, after all, was bad enough. According to Perdue's office, under it only two states (Idaho and Utah) would have lower total spending per pupil than North Carolina.

Think about that. By one measure, as recently as 2008 North Carolina ranked 40th among the states in public elementary and secondary school expenditures - hardly a ranking to write home about, but at least we topped Mississippi (then 47th).

That sinking feeling

Now, the Governor's Office estimates, the House's proposed K-12 budget would place North Carolina 48th. A state that boasts of its university system, its research parks, its commitment to educate a competitive workforce - third from the bottom in public school spending?

That was the best the House could do. Now it's the Senate's turn. And its target for K-12 spending turns out to be $106 million lower than the House's total of $7.16 billion. (The governor's budget allows $7.57 billion; the state Board of Education sought $8.28 billion.)

Do we hear 49th? 50th? These cuts are bound to affect classroom education - fewer teachers and aides, more crowding, more scrimping.

According to Senate leader Phil Berger, it's about living within our means. But that's not it at all. In this case, it's about living on less than our means.

Two years ago a Democratic-controlled General Assembly responded to the recession by a) trimming some expenditures and b) enacting a pair of "temporary" tax hikes. One placed a surcharge on upper-income tax rates and the other added a penny to the state's sales tax. The income tax surcharge will depart on schedule July 1. Republicans insist that the extra penny on the sales tax must go too.

Save the revenue

Perdue, after first indicating that she would allow both taxes to expire, reconsidered once she parsed the budget details. Federal stimulus money was going away. Tax revenues remained sluggish. School enrollment grows. Better, Perdue said, to retain most of the extra sales tax (she settled on three-quarters of a cent) than to cut education too deeply.

The Democratic governor said that months ago, and now, in mid-May, that's how it's shaking out. Republicans seem more concerned about fulfilling their tax-cutting campaign promises than they are about dropping North Carolina nearer the bottom of the barrel in K-12 education.

What's their strategy here? Push more of North Carolina's traditionally state-heavy education spending down to the county level? But that won't work. The counties, with their eroding property tax bases, have even less leeway than the state. School staffs and budgets have been cut close to the bone.

No, there is no magic answer, and no evading the legislature's responsibility. Keep the extra sales tax until the economy fully recovers. Use the hundreds of millions of dollars it produces to shore up education and for other good causes. That's the ultimate promise that must be kept.

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