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Education Takes Hit in House Budget Proposal

Lawmakers at the General Assembly have begun rolling out suggested budget cuts. It's part of the process of putting together the state's spending plan for the next two years. But with an estimated shortfall of about two billion dollars, cobbling together a budget this year is more painful than usual. That's especially true in the area of education, which takes up 60 percent of the state's budget.

This morning Democratic Representative Marian McLawhorn of Grifton was sitting in her office, reading through two official-looking packets that are already a little dog eared.

Marian McLawhorn: "This is the money report. And these are the special provisions in the bigger packet. "

McLawhorn received the packets late yesterday afternoon, at an education subcommittee meeting held expressly to release Republican-proposed budget cuts.

McLawhorn: "The money report is usually what everybody goes through first, because that shows the dollars that are either added, or in most of these cases, that are cut."

There are eight pages of charts and lists showing just how much money Republican leaders want to cut from specific programs at schools, community colleges, and universities. As she glances down at the numbers, McLawhorn says she and other committee members are feeling a little shell shocked.

McLawhorn: "We knew that there would be cuts. We did not know the amounts of the cuts. And there are significant cuts."

They include proposed reductions of 8.8 percent for public schools, ten percent for community colleges, and 15.5 percent for higher education. Republican Representative Bryan Holloway is a co-chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Bryan Holloway: "Certainly we have a very tough task ahead of us because we're dealing with such a economic crisis. But our position in here was to try to protect teaching positions, and protect the classroom. And I feel like we did that and I know we did that. "

The cuts protect teachers' jobs, but they eliminate all teacher assistant positions beyond kindergarten and first grade. Funds for assistant principals are cut by 21 percent, and funding for many other non-teaching positions is cut as well.

June Atkinson: "Our superintendents and local school boards are really painted in a corner of where they can take cuts. "

June Atkinson is the Superintendent of Public Instruction. She says normally local superintendents have more flexibility in terms of how they can use state money, but she says the requirement to keep all teachers on the job complicates things for local education leaders.

Atkinson: "The special provisions limit where they can cut teachers, where they can manage the budget, and frankly I just don't know where some of our school districts that have very little if any local funding will go to find cuts. "

And higher education leaders aren't happy about the proposals either. UNC President Tom Ross says the multimillion dollar cuts to the system would result in eliminating 3200 faculty and staff positions, and 240 thousand class seats. Republican leaders say they understand that the proposed cuts are painful, but they say the state should be able to handle it. Thom Tillis is the Speaker of the House.

Thom Tillis: "It's not clear to us that the money currently being spent, is being deployed efficiently, that you've seen on a per-pupil basis, spending going up, and outcomes going down. So you know it's not just about the money."

State education leaders dispute Tillis' assertion that students' outcomes are declining. And Governor Bev Perdue has repeatedly said that education won't be gutted on her watch. Education committee members will have the opportunity to introduce amendments to the proposed cuts next week. After that the budget proposals will go to the full House for consideration.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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