As he unveiled his proposed $20.6 billion dollar budget yesterday, the banner behind Governor Pat McCrory trumpeted the three initiatives he wanted to emphasize. It read: “Economy. Education. Efficiency.” In reality, though, education should have been number one, because it’s by far the largest expenditure and the area where the biggest fights are likely.
“Education will make up more than half our general fund budget,” said McCrory, “but more importantly it is the building block of the foundation of North Carolina’s future.”
More than $11 billion in the budget is devoted to education, which includes Pre-K, K-12, community colleges and the university system. It's the area that a Governor can most affect changes in policy, and Governor McCrory took advantage of that fact with a budget that highlights his education priorities, including school safety and technology.
"I’ve always said we wanted to change the debate away from just the budget in education and into new policies,” he said.
This was a highly anticipated budget by those in and around education. Because of the Republican majority in both houses, the Governor’s budget may get tweaked, but it is unlikely to see a major overhaul. And if there was a winner, it was Pre-K.
“I think people understand how important those early years are,” said Tracy Zimmerman with the North Carolina Partnership For Children. “We’ve been talking to business leaders across the state and others about early childhood investment and they get this. So I’m not surprised. I think that people from both parties readily see how important these early years are.”
About 5,000 more at-risk children would have access to pre-K programs under McCrory’s budget, at a cost of more than $52 million over two years.
But while Governor McCrory’s budget includes more for Pre-K, it’s one proposal that could be ripe for picking when the general assembly starts its budget process.
“I think there’s no doubt that just about everything in the budget is a topic for conversation” said Zimmerman. “I’m sure we’ll continue to hear more about all aspects including early childhood.”
Public-school teachers did not fare as well. The Governor made a big deal of the 1,800 new teachers his budget would hire statewide. But that comes with a catch: a budget cut of $117 million for teacher assistants in the second and third grades – or about 3,000 jobs cut.
Teachers and other state employees would get a one percent raise under McCrory’s budget, but that's unlikely to improve the state’s ranking of 46th of 50 states in teacher salaries. The budget proposes no new revenue through tax increases.
“Listen I want to increase the pay for teachers right now,” said McCrory. ”But I’ve also got to work within the parameters of the money that’s coming in right now in this tough economy.”
Even bigger cuts in McCrory’s budget came in higher education. The UNC system would see a $135 million reduction next year, on top of about $400 million in permanent cuts the last several years. Here, too, McCrory made some money available in an effort to push a policy he likes; specifically $65 million to implement a recently approved strategic plan.
McCrory also mandated that in-state tuition not go up, eliminating a possible revenue source and further squeezing campuses. McCrory’s advisers said a rise in out-of-state tuition would offset some of the cuts.
“I am very concerned by the magnitude of the new cuts proposed for our campuses, particularly in light of the more than $400 million in permanent budget reductions we absorbed two years ago,” UNC president Tom Ross said in a release. “ I worry about the impact additional reductions will have on our ability to provide high-quality educational opportunities to our residents and to assist in North Carolina's economic recovery.”
The situation isn’t as dire at the community college level, but the challenges are still significant.
“The vast majority of our colleges would have less funding next year but all of our students would have a higher tuition and continuing education fee,” says Community College President Scott Ralls. “So that’s kind of a tough trade-off, if you will.”
As expected, Republicans in the state legislature praised McCrory’s budget, while Democrats called it devastating to education at all levels. Lawmakers will begin the real process of hammering out a budget soon, with a target of having a final one in place by early June.