As the Senate gave final approval to a $19.7 billion budget plan Thursday, a chorus of education leaders warned of harmful consequences for North Carolina's classrooms.
The discontent grew louder among Democrats and the state's education establishment as the Republican budget plan moved to the House for a series of quick votes starting today. The House plans to send it to Gov. Bev Perdue on Saturday. Five House Democrats have said they will join Republicans in support, creating a veto-proof margin.
In a unanimous vote Thursday, the State Board of Education passed a resolution saying the budget "is not in the interest of the people of this great state."
Board Chairman Bill Harrison called the budget "a disgrace" and took direct aim at Republican leaders in an impassioned 20-minute speech that drew a standing ovation in the boardroom.
"If you want to dismantle the public schools, if you want to privatize them - say it," Harrison said. "Don't say 'We're reforming a broken system.' Say, 'I don't care about public schools, I'm going to break an improving system and here's my budget by which I am going to do it.' Let's be honest with one another, folks."
Republicans said such fears are overblown. The Senate's budget would spend $7.46 billion on public schools, while Perdue would spend $7.57 billion. The difference shrinks, though, when taking into account the fact that the Senate budget transfers $65 million for the More at Four preschool program to another part of the budget.
"I think he's definitely overreacting," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican and chairman of an education committee. "I think he's out of touch with the locals."
Apodaca said he has spoken with two superintendents in the western part of the state who were not overly concerned. "You know, of course they would like to have more - who wouldn't?" Apodaca said. "But they both said they felt like this was something they could work with."
The Senate plan does not include a specific reduction for teacher assistants, and it includes $62 million for more teachers to reduce class size in grades 1, 2 and 3. But it would force school districts to cut an additional $124 million, which could mean the loss of an estimated 9,200 jobs, including teachers and teacher assistants.
UNC system cuts
For higher education, UNC system President Tom Ross said the Senate's net cut of $407 million will be difficult for the universities to absorb and still be able to provide "an affordable, world-class university education to our citizens."
Perdue chimed in with a letter to Republican leaders arguing that deep cuts can be prevented by retaining the three-quarters of a penny sales tax that is due to expire. She also wrote that she's willing to consider other revenue sources to bring in money.
In a conference call with reporters, she called the Senate budget "ideological and dangerous" for higher education. Perdue was joined by retired UNC system President Bill Friday, who said the plan would do long-term damage to the state's economic future.
"We are losing the momentum that has triggered the growth and development of this state," Friday said. "We simply have built what we have because of the quality of these institutions, and our future rests squarely on maintaining that quality."
Perdue proposed a $2.6 billion budget for the UNC system. The budget moving through the legislature puts UNC spending at $2.5 billion.
Berger decries 'rhetoric'
Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said the governor is moving "more and more into this extreme rhetoric. She does appear to be more desperate in terms of how she's characterizing things."
While Democrats and Republicans traded barbs, education leaders dissected the policy issues and specific spending cuts.
Harrison, the state board chairman, said the Senate budget sends mixed messages.
For example, the plan would expand the school calendar by five days, but it would cut transportation - making it harder to bus children to school on the extra days. The budget calls for a study on how to ensure students are reading by third grade. But it eliminates a $10 million pilot program for diagnostic tools that would provide teachers with real-time information on student learning.
The Senate plan also includes a 19 percent reduction in funding for assistant principals, who play a big role in school safety and discipline, Harrison said.
Class size goal doubted
As for the Senate's class-size reduction plan, Harrison is skeptical about the stated goal of eventually funding schools on a 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio in early grades. The current funding ratio is 18-to-1, though class sizes are typically 21 to 24 students.
"We'll never get there," Harrison said. "We won't get there in my lifetime."
But Harrison was most critical of Republican claims that the public school system needs an overhaul. He said he is proud of the progress North Carolina has made recently, citing graduation rates that climbed from 68 percent to 74 percent in the last four years.
"It's not a broken system," Harrison said. "I can list indicators all day long that would show we're not a broken system."
Berger, though, said such progress isn't good enough.
"We've got to move those numbers dramatically," said Berger, who has said the Senate budget gets a start on reform. "We've got to stop being satisfied with inching up."
On Thursday, Perdue did not say whether she would veto the budget, but she wasn't shy about bashing it.
"I can't wait to get my hands on the document," she said, "so I can find more things that are evil."
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