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The education system becomes a demolition zone


“Please excuse our mess”: It’s a sign that all of us have encountered at a construction site at one time or another. It tells customers and passersby that, despite the current disorder, a more impressive setting will emerge — hopefully in the near future.

Looking back on the performance of the North Carolina General Assembly, it’s increasingly clear that state lawmakers should have placed such a sign around their work in the field of education, because it was and is messy.

The only problem is that it’s not at all clear that the mess will be cleaned up anytime soon.

From pre-Kindergarten to community colleges to the university system, public education and public institutions have been ripped apart by huge budget cuts in the name of “fiscal accountability” and “reform.”

Of course, one of the first things a builder knows is that if you want a beautiful, high-quality structure at the end of construction, you cannot try to build “on the cheap.” Unfortunately, that is precisely what North Carolinians are being asked to settle for as state per pupil spending on public schools has plummeted from 45th to 49th or 50th in the country.

Budget cuts have also made it more difficult to keep teachers in classrooms. Although the General Assembly said it would provide enough money for school districts to prevent the layoff any teachers, according to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), in the 2011-2012 school year, 1,723 K-12 classroom teaching positions were eliminated and 534 teachers were laid off. That is no way to build a successful school system in a growing state.

While traditional public schools receive funding cuts, the General Assembly raised the cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state. In fact, they are so anxious to create “competition” for traditional public schools that some applications will be “fast-tracked.”

While builders know that they want to finish the construction on-time and under budget, they also know that building too fast can result in a whole structure collapsing. That, unfortunately, is what is happening with charter schools. When charter schools operate as they were intended, they can be a valuable resource to educating students. Charter schools have fewer regulations in order to create innovative techniques that can be brought into traditional public school classrooms.

This is not, however, what the current legislature intends. Rather than advancing charters in order to help public schools, most of the public justifications for the rapid expansion of charters have been based upon the argument that traditional public schools are “failing” and that there has to be an “alternative.”

The number of these alternatives is already so large that it is impossible for the small number of DPI staffers assigned the task to effectively monitor them.

Fast-tracking applications to create more charters could well overwhelm an already overworked group. That is not a good model for building a superior public education system.

Pre-Kindergarten programs also were radically restructured. The much-acclaimed More at Four program was renamed “North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten” and slammed with huge budget cuts. These cuts hit the program so hard that there was a change in who was eligible for the free service and low-income parents who depend on the program to educate their children while they work are now required to pay a fee which could equal 10% of their gross income.

Very much like a building code inspector, Judge Howard Manning reviewed what lawmakers did to the program and ordered them to repair the damage. The Governor then issued an Executive Order to ensure the court order was enforced and later guidance from the Department of Human Services about how to fund the program. Thus far, however, the legislative “construction” site remains silent in response.

Higher education was not spared either. Lawmakers used a legislative trick to get around Governor Perdue’s veto of a bill that allowed individual community colleges to opt-out of federal student loan programs. The result is that many students cannot now receive low-cost loans from the federal government to finance their future.

Meanwhile, budget cuts may well give rise to tuition increases in the university system of as much as 40%.

This is not the way to build a post-secondary education system that gives everyone has a chance to compete for the jobs this General Assembly said they would create.

During this legislative session the budget cuts have made a mess of public education. It sometimes leads one to wonder: Is this construction or just demolition? Whatever it is, it is a mess that the residents of North Carolina cannot excuse. And right, now, there’s no indication that things will get better anytime soon.

Chris Hill is the Director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.