North Carolina’s lawmakers are back in session and facing a potential $3.7 billion budget shortfall. That’s frightening. What’s even more frightening is how the budget might be balanced — through massive cuts, which, in the long run, could harm this state’s economy significantly.
Of course, that huge shortfall number is an estimate, and until Gov. Beverly Perdue’s budget is released, no one really knows where the cuts will land. That said, Perdue doesn’t seem to want to ask the newly Republican-led General Assembly for any extra revenue, possibly because it’d be a helluva fight. Even though there is a one percent sales tax due to expire next summer, which, if reinstated, could halve the estimated shortfall.
Two proposed cuts that we could see in this year’s budget that would further strangle our state’s public education system include firing up to 5,000 teachers and 13,000 teachers’ assistants across the state and cutting funds to Smart Start, North Carolina’s nationally recognized early childhood education program.
First off, the teacher and teacher assistant cuts will not only result in an even larger state unemployment rate, but they’ll AGAIN increase the student to teacher ratio in classrooms. In fact, the first proposed cut will double the number of teachers fired since the General Assembly started letting teachers go in 2009.
“I think it’s absurd,” says Rep. Patsy Keever, a Democrat. “Education is the most important thing we do. Taking more teachers out of the classroom is only going to hurt all of us.”
Representative Susan Fisher, Democrat, agrees: “It’s just wrong to purposefully erode public education. These are the kinds of budget cuts that will set back lots of the progress that we’ve made over many years.”
I personally have been in a couple of Asheville public school classrooms since the last round of lay-offs increased the student-to-teacher ratio, and let me tell you, 23-to-1 is not a ratio conducive to a focused learning environment. The teachers are doing amazing work, given severe limitations, but as a former teacher, you couldn’t pay me enough to work in a North Carolina public classroom today. I’m not that tough.
We live in the sixth fastest-growing state in the nation, but we rank 45th in per-pupil spending, according to 2007-08 census data. In that year, N.C. spent $7,996 per student per year. The U.S. state average is $10,259. This can’t be good news for North Carolina’s students.
As for the SmartStart cuts, I’ve been hearing more and more about how essential early education can be, especially for children from deprived backgrounds (including a recent fact sheet compiled by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. See ncsmartstart.org for more).
“Anyone who cares about our future and our economy needs to support education, particularly early childhood education,” Keever says.
Newly elected Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt has three sons still in school — one in a WNC public elementary school.
“It’s [budget cuts] something that does concern me. We need to protect the classroom at all costs,” Moffitt says.
“We need to make government more efficient and more effective without sacrificing quality in the process,” he adds. He noted that he’s still in “fact-finding mode” and doesn’t have clear answers for how this can be done yet.
Obviously, there will need to be some cuts somewhere. No one wants taxes to be higher. But is there a way to balance the state budget without slashing more of the beating heart of our kids’ education?
Fisher believes there are other places cuts can be made and other legislation should be questioned before reducing our public investments, such as teacher and protective services jobs (police and fire fighter positions could be on the line as well). Surely there are bloated government programs that can be trimmed to support the efficiency of which Moffitt speaks, without harming some of our most essential services.
And what can those of us who are parents, teachers, students and concerned citizens do to help?
“I absolutely encourage people to talk to the state’s Republican leadership and let them know that we can’t abide this tearing down of the public schools,” Fisher says.
This also seems to be a good time for us to ask Gov. Perdue to consider the future of our state and our educational system while designing our state’s budget.
You can learn more at a Fund Schools First presentation and Q & A event on Thursday evening, Feb. 24 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the main auditorium of Asheville High School. Asheville City Schools superintendent Allan Johnson and the Board of Education will discuss the budget crisis and offer ways to act.
Also, the NC chapter of national mom activists, MomsRising, will rally on the morning of Feb. 23 in Raleigh to the remind our state legislators that ‘we think they can’ find a way to protect essential children’s programs even in this tough budget year,” according to their press release. To join in and learn more, visit www.action.momsrising.
Another rally, Stand Up for N.C., will be held at Pack Square Park on Feb. 21 at 10 a.m.
Finally, visit www.mountainx.com/special/ncmatters for lists of WNC legislators and ways to contact them.