Raleigh, N.C. — When Republican lawmakers rolled out the compromise House-Senate budget Wednesday, they said they were spending $250 million more on education than the current year budget. Of course, it was about six hours after they made this claim before budget documents were available to the public that would allow anyone to check it.
After the budget documents were released, Democrats insisted it contained a $190 million cut to education. That cut, they said, would cost public schools the equivalent of 3,400 teachers.
Lawmakers debated the budget today and whether education spending increased by $255 million or would require a $190 million cut was central to the debate.
Both sides are right in their own way.
Where we started
To vet the Republican and Democratic claims, it’s helpful to know the starting point from which budget writers were working. Before lawmakers set pen to paper this year, two things were slated to happen:
- $258.5 million in federal EduJobs money was set to expire. This was money given to the state during the stimulus that school districts had used to buffer themselves against state cuts.
- The so-called “flex cut” to public schools was slated to go up by $74.1 million. That would have brought the total amount of the flex cut up to $503 million. Under a flex cut, schools are handed a budget by the state and then asked to hand back a certain amount of money. Schools are then responsible for finding savings through cutting back on teachers or other operational costs.
If lawmakers had made no changes, public schools would have had $332.6 million less to work with in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Republicans leaders say they should not be held accountable for federal spending that had dropped off the map. At the same time, they acknowledged that the flex cut was a problem for schools.
The House and Senate budget addressed these items in different ways. The House version of the budget would have wiped out the combined $332.6 million cut next year by using a combination of money raised through taxes and on-times savings. Senators refused to use one-time money to meet recurring needs, but did keep the flex cut from going up by $74 million.
The bill that is heading to Gov. Bev Perdue is a compromise between those two positions.
The new budget bill
Republicans say the new budget bill spends $250 million more on education than last year. That’s correct if you look at three things:
- A $143.3 rollback to the flex cut. $126.9 million of that comes from tax dollars and another $16.4 million comes from lottery revenue.
- Funding the “Excellent Public Schools Act” with $27 million in state tax revenue. This money will support schools staying open for five extra instructional days and a new push to ensure all students can read by the time they leave the third grade.
- $85 million set aside to give an average 1.2 percent pay raise to teachers.
Those three items total $255 million in new state spending on the education budget.
Still, education advocates and Democrats seemed less than overjoyed.
“However, the state spending plan approved today is insufficient to meet the needs of North Carolina's public school children and the educators who serve them,” N.C. Association of Educators President Sheri Strickland said in a statement after details of the spending plans came out.
On the House floor, Democrats said that the GOP-crafted budget was $190 million short of a “break even” budget.
And State School Board Chairman William Harrison said that the budget falls short of what he had hoped for.
“I don’t think the budget provides much relief at all. There are still going to be additional cuts that need to be made. I just don’t think they did what they need to do to do right by the boys and girls of North Carolina,” Harrison said.
If Republicans are really putting $250 million more into schools, why the complaints?
Keep in mind, boosting STATE spending by $255 million over last year is still $77.6 million short of erasing the $332.6 combined state and federal cuts schools were facing.
And Democrats point out that the pay raise money and funds for the Excellent Public Schools Act can’t be used to keep or hire more individual educators. The EduJobs money, school superintendents say, was mostly used to pay for teachers, librarians, teaching assistants and the like. So while that $112 million does boost spending on schools, it doesn't address the problem that EduJobs helped to fix.
That combination of factors, Democrats say, means that $190 million of the $332.6 million combined state-federal cut that schools were facing at the beginning of the budget cycle remain. What would be more precise to say is while the state provided more money for education overall, there is $190 million less available to pay for teaching positions.
A couple of final notes might help put some of this in context.
- 11,802 more students are expected to enroll in North Carolina public schools for the 2012-13 school year than were enrolled this year.
- If you look at the bottom-line numbers for K-12 education spending, the 2011-12 budget spent $7.444 billion on public schools. The 2012-13 budget that has just been sent to the governor spends $7.506 billion on K-12 education. That's only an increase of $62 million. Lawmakers can only claim a $255 million increase in spending because the new budget does away with cuts that were set to take place.
- Schools will still be dealing with a $361 million flex cut under this budget.
The budget is now in Perdue's hands. She has 10 days to sign the bill, veto it, or allow it to become law without her signature.