RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — With students going back to school in a few days in mountain counties, state lawmakers and teachers are stepping up their efforts to shape the perceptions of parents about whether the state has invested enough in public education.
While Republican lawmakers say they increased education spending in a tough environment, teachers contend that the GOP-led legislature cut state spending and shortchanged classrooms.
“I think the big test, and this is probably what this public relation campaign is gearing up for, is the first day of classes,” said J. Michael Bitzer, a political science and history professor at Catawba College, the alma mater of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. “I think both sides have seen this as their opportunity to frame an issue that hits almost all North Carolinians.”
The North Carolina Association of Educators, Public Schools First NC, and the liberal group Progress NC rallied Monday in Charlotte to protest Republican policies that they say have armed public education this year. Similar rallies are planned the rest of this week in Wilmington, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Asheville, and Greenville.
They note that this year’s $20.6 billion state budget provides $117 million less to public schools than they would have gotten if lawmakers had changed nothing and accounted for increased enrollment and inflation.
Critics said the budget is a blow to teaching in a state that already offers some of the country’s lowest salaries. Along with no pay raises, critics contend, the budget brings less job security for teachers, the end of extra pay for graduate degrees, and less classroom help with small children.
The budget eliminated funding for about 3,800 teaching assistant jobs.
Republicans, including Senate leader Phil Berger in a newspaper opinion essay published Sunday, counter that they didn’t cut public school spending, and instead budgeted $360 million more than last year.
A cut or an increase? It depends how you count.
Spending on public schools was higher than what lawmakers allocated last year, as Berger notes. On the other hand, the governor’s budget office annually estimates the impact of inflation, new requirements for services, and other factors in describing how much would have to be spent this year to keep last year’s level of service intact. If keeping last year’s level of services the same was a goal, North Carolina isn’t keeping up on the needs of its 2,500 public schools.
Local school boards could prevent any state spending cuts from having an effect on students by finding new money or, as Berger said, deciding on a new mix of spending that keeps adults employed.
For example, hundreds of teacher assistants in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district will take pay cuts to avoid layoffs. The Perquimans County and Edenton-Chowan school boards last week decided to eliminate five and four teacher assistant positions, respectively.
Parents will decide for themselves whether they notice fewer teachers and crowded classrooms, or local administrators are able to adjust as they have under recession-strained state budgets in recent years, Bitzer said.
School spending is at the heart of a broader dispute over what is the right size for government, said Carter Wrenn, a Republican campaign consultant who worked for years with the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ political organization.
“It’s like all politics — It’s pretty messy. You’ve got one side saying you cut, the other side saying we didn’t, and then the first side saying, ‘Well, you didn’t spend enough.’ That leads you into a pretty real debate — what’s enough?” Wrenn said. “That’s a legitimate debate to have.”
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