February 1, 2012

Update on Education Spending: The Facts

The recent news has been saturated with Governor Bev Perdue’s withdrawal from her re-election campaign, and her call for even higher taxes and spending in our state. The 2011 legislature took office with taxes and spending at an all-time high, which was fueling the depressed economy and huge job losses. While we wish the best for Gov. Perdue personally as she leaves office, we also call for her to govern responsibly as she finishes out her term.

The governor has criticized the state budget in particular for "extreme cuts" to public education. It is time to get past the hypocritical rhetoric and look at the facts regarding the General Assembly's actual K-12 public education budget compared with Gov. Perdue's budget proposal for 2011-2012.

Teachers often remind us that Gov. Perdue has been no friend to teachers (or parents and students). She consistently supported the bureaucracy and liberal union leadership over the needs of classroom teachers, even choosing to furlough teachers and cut their pay rather than cutting the bloated bureaucracy. Now with historically low approval, the governor has withdrawn from her re-election campaign and is focusing her efforts on increasing taxes and demonizing the legislature which has been charged with the difficult task of cleaning up the fiscal mess in Raleigh. However, the polls have consistently shown that most NC voters are not “buying what she is selling”.

The bipartisan 2011-12 budget passed over her veto, with the help of five moderate Democrats. However, the governor and other liberals insist that an $800 million tax increase (a 16% increase in the state's share of the sales tax) was and is necessary to avoid dire consequences to the public schools.

In the last session with a Democratic legislative majority during the Purdue administration (2009-10), they had passed a $1.3 billion tax increase that sent an already struggling economy into record numbers of bankruptcies, foreclosures, and unemployment. Businesses left, closed, or cut employees as jobs were lost in droves. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation ranked NC in the worst ten states in the nation for businesses regarding taxes and regulations.

Perdue and her liberal allies in the legislature have consistently denounced the 2011-12 budget as devastating to public education (and other core services). This false rhetoric was compounded by the fact that the legislature inherited a budget in shambles with a $3 billion projected shortfall. Even with the highest tax and spend levels in state history, and even spending the $1.5 billion federal “stimulus” in the previous budget, the Democrats still had not given state employees and teachers a pay increase for three years running.

Regarding the 2011-12 state budget, let’s look at the facts: Once the liberals' political shell game is exposed, in reality, Governor Perdue proposed fewer real net dollars for K-12 public education in her proposed 2011-12 budget than the legislature actually adopted. (The legislature also mandated more percentage for the classroom and less for the Raleigh bureaucracy, but that’s another story in itself.)

Consider that the direct appropriation in the K-12 education budget was a mere 0.57% under the governor’s proposal. The numbers look like this: the governor proposed a total K-12 budget of $7.57 billion. The budget that passed is $7.53 billion. This also accounts for $65 million for the More at Four program (which sensibly was moved from the Dept. of Education to Health and Human Services) to make an ‘apples to apples’ comparison. The difference is $43.2 million (0.57%).

However, Governor Perdue's budget included approximately $300 million in unfunded mandates to the counties (and would have added a few more cents to our county property tax rate). Included in this, the governor’s budget would have shifted $74.5 million that had been the state's responsibility onto the local school boards. These items included $35.2 million for school buses, $4.6 million for tort claims and $34.7 million for worker's compensation, totaling $74.5 million.

The General Assembly's budget eliminated these unfunded mandates that our counties simply could not afford, particularly low wealth counties such as ours. As a former county commissioner, I know how such unfunded mandates wreck county budgets. It is a political shell game with tax dollars that the previous majority played for years, and another ploy to borrow, tax and spend more… grow government… and send our children the bill they will never be able to pay.

The governor and the old-style tax-and-spend Raleigh politicians wanted to continue this game, but they failed this year. Their rhetoric has been heated and they will not go quietly. But once you wade through the numbers and the politics, it becomes clear there were actually more dollars available for K-12 education than the governor had proposed. The big difference was that the legislature cut the bureaucracy… the pet of the governor and her liberal allies. Thus we hear their “sky is falling on NC education” mantra constantly. It just is not true.

The 2011 legislature also enacted a number of other notable accomplishments to improve the quality of education in our state. The legislature did the following:

1. We provided for enhanced student enrollment growth in its budget (the governor did not).

2. We removed the cap on charter schools, in response to the heavy demand of parents for this option. Over 20,000 students were on waiting lists, and the previous legislature refused to address this basic parental right to make the best choice for their own child.

3. We eliminated unnecessary End-of-Grade tests, which many teachers and parents agree wasted valuable class time and promoted a ‘teach to the test’ mentality rather than true learning. Now we have only those tests required by federal law. Schools are using true assessments based on national norms to measure student achievement with ACT tests in 8th, 10th and 11th grades.

4. We produced a net gain of state supported teachers despite balancing the budget and eliminating the projected budget shortfall. The reports confirm that the number of state funded education employees actually increased by 3.7 percent (4,720). It is true that federally and locally funded positions decreased by a total of 9,407. People should also realize that many vacant positions were eliminated, and historically there is always considerable turnover. Also, this decrease would have been far greater if Gov. Perdue's $74.5 million “money grab” from local school boards had occurred.

5. We particularly increased teachers up to the third grade level, to emphasize the need for children to learn to read. Too many children fall behind early and never catch up. The poor readers are much more likely to drop out… one-third of ninth graders never graduate. Of those that do graduate and go to college, 60% must take remedial courses. SAT scores have declined, even as the scoring system was changed to inflate the scores. Just spending more money has not addressed this problem… it has worsened over the years as the bureaucracy continued to grow.

6. We passed new legislation to offer educational tax credits to families of children with particular disabilities that allows the parents to choose the best educational avenue for that child. This is a win-win situation: it is better for the child, and also can save significant money to the local school system in many instances. It is being touted as a national model.

7. We provided teachers with the liability insurance they need at no cost to them… saving teachers up to $400 a year. What was happening was that the previous legislature refused to provide the insurance, and many teachers felt forced to pay bloated union dues to get the coverage. The legislature had actually passed a special law to force state employees to do the work of collecting the union dues through automatic deductions, and the teachers would never see the money. Then, a portion of their dues could be funneled to liberal politicians through the NEA/NCAE political action committee. This group had spent $3.5 million to elect Gov. Perdue, and 99% of NCAE PAC dollars went to Democrats (although polling shows that more teachers say they are conservative than liberal).

Such manipulation was deplorable, and underscores the need for reform. It is time to get the politics out of the classroom, let the parents raise their children, and let the teachers teach. The 2010 election brought some change to education politics as usual in our state. Students, parents and teachers have been used as pawns in the system for too long. These changes must continue. Education must be about what is best for parents and their children, not a bureaucracy.

I am delighted to serve on the House Education Committee, and work for better quality education in our state… education we can both afford and be proud of. I will continue to work hard on behalf of parents, students, and teachers to make better education a reality, rather than someone’s campaign slogan.

I appreciate the dedicated service of honest liberals and conservatives alike, but I will continue to report the facts and not succumb to the liberal rhetoric that often dominates the so-called ‘mainstream media’. I hope anyone with questions or concerns will not hesitate to contact me at Bert.Jones@ncleg.net. We can do better by our parents, students, and teachers in this state, and I believe that as we build more new leadership in Raleigh, we will do so.

Best regards, Bert