Private school vouchers at center of House budget debate

lbonner@newsobserver.com June 12, 2013 

CURSIVE03-NE-022213-RTW

Teacher Cindy Kusilek works with students in her third grade class at Franklin Academy Charter School as they spend time developing their cursive writing skills on Friday February 22, 2013 in Wake Forest, N.C. Students in her class spend 20-30 minutes daily working on their cursive handwriting skills.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • A look at what’s on the table

    The House gave tentative approval to its budget Wednesday; the final vote is expected Thursday. Debate is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Once approved in the House, the bill goes to the Senate for negotiations.

    Here’s a snapshot of the day’s action and what differences won’t be easily resolved in the Senate.

    AMENDMENTS

    The House voted on 27 amendments, passing 16 and defeating 11.

    Dropout age: None resulted in sweeping changes, though advocates for raising the legal school dropout age from 16 to 18 will have a small experiment in Hickory and Newton-Conover City Schools. The budget allows those districts to run a test program on raising the age. Raising the dropout age has simmered for years at the legislature. Even as the state’s graduation rate has increased, some think the cudgel of a law is needed to keep more students in school. The idea has never gained serious traction.

    Prisons: Democrats and Republicans tried and failed to keep open prisons in rural areas. Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Republican from Burke County, tried to phase out job cuts at the Western Youth Center. Rep Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Wagram, proposed keeping Robeson Correctional Center open. Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Smithfield Republican, said the state doesn’t have enough prisoners to fill all its prison beds.

    STUMBLING BLOCKS AHEAD

    Taxes: The tax package and the budget interlock, so the House and Senate have to agree how much money they’re going to reserve for tax cuts before they agree on a budget.

    Education: The House keeps class-size limits in kindergarten through third grades and reduces funding for teacher assistants by $24 million. The Senate lifts class-size limits and cuts $142.3 million used to pay teacher assistants.

    Economic Development: The House budget keeps the Rural Center, while the Senate defunds it.

    Justice and Public Safety: The Senate wants to eliminate 12 Special Superior Court judges. The House doesn’t cut them. The Senate moves the State Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Public Safety, while the House keeps it in the Department of Justice.

    AISLE CROSSERS

    Democratic Reps. William Brisson of Dublin and Ken Waddell of Chadbourn voted for the budget.

    Republican Rep. Robert Brawley of Mooresville voted against it.

    Staff writer Lynn Bonner

House lawmakers pushed forward their $20.6 billion budget after more than seven hours of debate Wednesday that was punctuated by a back-and-forth on private-school vouchers where the House speaker took the unusual step of participating.

The House approved the budget in a 77-41 vote and will take a final vote on its proposal Thursday.

Republicans praised the budget for its pragmatism, while Democrats said it hurts the middle class and does nothing to reduce unemployment.

“We should have put funding in a real job-creating programs,” said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat. “We cut job creation programs and programs that provide leverage for our communities.”

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a chief budget writer and Cary Republican, said Democrats just want to raise taxes.

“They don’t want to see tax reform; they don’t want to see rates lowered,” Dollar said. “What Republicans want to do, we want to set priorities.”

House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, said the state has some wonderful public schools, but not every school is good.

“The poorest, most at-risk children in this state need an option other than the traditional option they’re receiving,” he said. “If we don’t help them, we lose them.”

The House budget provides $10 million for the next school year to have children from low-income families use taxpayer money to help pay private school tuition.

One of the proposal’s prominent supporters, Rep. Edward Hanes, a Winston-Salem Democrat, triggered the debate by asking for the voucher provisions to be removed from the budget and be allowed to stand on their own as a separate bill.

Tillis has taken a particular interest in vouchers, even sitting in an appropriation subcommittee meeting last Friday until the voucher provision survived a vote to kill it.

Voucher opponents said this was not the time to fund a separate school system when the state wasn’t adequately supporting the public system.

“This will damage seriously urban education without providing rural kids any real options,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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