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NC Democrats pan GOP plan for schools, Smart Start

Posted April 14, 2011 5:27 p.m. EDT
Updated April 14, 2011 6:32 p.m. EDT

State budget

— House Democrats say the $1.2 billion in proposed education cuts for next year rolled out by their Republican counterparts this week are reckless and could lead to more than 20,000 job losses unless the GOP agrees to extend some of the temporary taxes set to expire.

Minority Leader Joe Hackney and others on Thursday derided the plan that the Department of Public Instruction says would eliminate money for more than 12,000 staff positions, more than two-thirds of them teacher assistants in the second and third grades.

"The proposed education budget cuts are stunningly massive and horrifyingly destructive," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland.

The North Carolina Association of Educators said several thousand more public school workers would lose their jobs through discretionary cuts placed upon local districts.

"This sets us way back," said Hackney, D-Orange. "The number of years that it sets us back, you could argue. Is it 20 years, 15 or 30?"

House Republican leaders blame the current crisis on the fiscal mismanagement of previous Democratic legislatures.

"Government must get real. We must live within our means," said Rep. Harold Brubaker, R-Randolph.

"This budget starts us on a process of reforming a public education system that has not worked well," said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Advocates for early childhood education and women's health also criticized GOP plans to hold back funds for Smart Start and Planned Parenthood.

"These programs are absolutely critical," Millbrook Elementary School Principal Paula Trantham said of Smart Start and More at Four, noting low-income, at-risk children learn critical skills in the pre-kindergarten classes.

"They know the basics to be successful in kindergarten. They know socially how to get along with others," Trantham said. "We don't want them to come in the door on the first day of kindergarten already behind."

Smart Start and More at Four face cuts of at least 30 percent in the House budget proposal. Even more alarming to some More at Four supporters is the possible shift of the program from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Moving it to the Division of Childhood Development, I think, would effectively end state-funded pre-kindergarten as we know it," said John Pruette, executive director of DPI's Office of Early Learning.

Pruette and others fear More at Four will become a day-care program instead of a childhood educational effort.

"If it turns out that way, I think that'll be a mistake, and I would be concerned about it," said Blackwell, R-Burke.

The University of North Carolina system would have to cut spending by 15 percent across its 17 campuses. Chancellor Holden Thorp said the $75 million cut to UNC-Chapel Hill would cause deep pain at the undergraduate level.

"It's too deep to manage without making qualitative changes in the programs the university offers, unless they come up with a way to provide revenue to fill the hole," Thorp said.