Education money shrinks in state budget

Jul. 22, 2013 @ 08:56 PM

RALEIGH — North Carolina's Republican legislative leaders are putting their free-enterprise stamp on public school and college education, the biggest chunk of this year's $20.6 billion state budget.

The plan unveiled late Sunday and headed toward expected approval in the General Assembly this week would allow armed volunteers into public schools as safety officers, increase the number of teachers who come to the classroom with college degrees but little training in education techniques, and allow low-income students to take $4,200 a year in taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition.

The $11.5 billion portion of the state budget set aside for public schools, community colleges and the University of North Carolina system cuts education spending by nearly $260 million this year and another $222 million next year.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the state spending plan was carefully crafted to invest in education and other high priorities while remaining fiscally responsible. Republicans this year have overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly and occupy the governor's office for the first time since the 1870s.

Critics said the budget is a blow to the profession of teaching in a state that already offers some of the country's lowest salaries. Piled on with the low pay now be a lack of job security, no pay for graduate degrees, less classroom help with small children, and larger class sizes, said Public Schools First NC, which advocates for the schools that educate about 1.5 million students.

The North Carolina Association of Educators plans to challenge the budget in court over its private-school voucher plan and other changes, association president Rodney Ellis wrote in a letter to lawmakers on Monday.

"For the first time in my career of more than 30 years in public education, I am truly worried about students in our care," state schools superintendent June Atkinson, an elected Democrat, said Monday. "I am disappointed for the children in our state who will have fewer educators and resources in their schools as a result of the General Assembly's budget. "

The budget would cut one-fifth of the funding for teaching assistants, translating to about 3,800 jobs, but continues to fund classroom helpers who work in kindergarten and first grade classrooms, said Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Teaching assistants previously had also been in second- and third-grade classrooms.

"The studies are not that clear that there's a direct relation when you get to second- and third-grade, so this was a policy that was started last budget and continued in this budget," Brunstetter said. Schools would have the flexibility to shift money from other priorities to hire more teaching assistants if they choose, he said.

Echoes of the National Rifle Association's suggestion to guard every school with an armed officer are in the budget's creation of volunteer school safety resource officers.

North Carolina's 2,500 public schools could begin seeing the unpaid officers with updated firearms training as early as December. The budget law says local school boards could make agreements with local sheriffs or police chiefs to provide the volunteers, who would have to have previous experience as either a law enforcement officer or a military police officer and receive training on the social and mental development of children. The officers could not be sued for their good-faith actions.

The budget settles the debate on whether parents should be allowed to re-route taxpayer dollars to help pay for private school. Beginning next year, the spending plan provides $10 million for low-income students to attend private school with grants of up to $4,200 a year. That's less than the average $8,400 cost to educate a student in public schools, so the budget accounts for $11.8 million in savings resulting from lower school enrollment.

There are no pay raises for teachers or other state employees in this budget, but beginning next year teachers who sign four-year contracts and are rated well for effectiveness could get a $500 annual merit raise from their superintendents.

The budget will spend $6 million in each year of the two-year budget to expand Teach for America, the national corps of recent college graduates who commit to teaching for two years in public schools around the country after a five-week summer training course. Supporters say the program helps channel enthusiastic, college graduates who didn't specialize in education degrees into hard-to-fill slots in underprivileged schools.

Out-of-state students attending University of North Carolina campuses in Chapel Hill, Wilmington, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem would see tuition increases of 12.3 percent next year, and 6 percent at other campuses. Tuition at community colleges will increase this year from $69 to $71.50 per credit hour for residents, or a maximum of $80 per year for full-time students.