House budget: evening up the odds

Educators gasping for air since the N.C. Senate gut punched public schools with its budget plan are breathing a little easy after the N.C. House unveiled its spending proposal. That’s not to say the House nailed it. It is to say that compared to the Godzilla unleashed by the Senate, the House plan looks like Casper the Ghost — friendly, if still a little weird. (Overview here:

In terms of public education, it’s most laudable feature doesn’t lie in the line items but lies instead in its philosophy. Much more than their colleagues in the upper chamber, House budget writers accept the state’s responsibility to provide equitable, evenly distributed opportunities for public education to people all across North Carolina. Doing otherwise — doing as the Senate proposes in cutting classroom positions to intolerable levels and slashing the Department of Public Instruction budget by 30 percent — only foists more costs on individual counties and ensures that the best schools become the province of rich counties.

It’s already bad enough in North Carolina, where public education’s sustenance depends largely on property tax revenue, itself a gauge of economic development registering the disparity between rich and poor, urban and rural. You can guess where Lenoir County falls on that continuum, like most eastern North Carolina counties. While Wake County, home of the state’s second largest public school system, tries to figure a way to pay teachers a higher local supplement, its supplement is already four times what LCPS can afford to pay. Local funding in Lenoir County for the 2012-2013 school year was about $500 per pupil below the state average. LCPS is scheduled to receive $9.9 million from the county for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the same amount the board of commissioners allocated this fiscal year. Like most school districts in rural, low wealth counties, LCPS has depended on state and federal funds — slightly higher than the state average here — to help close the gap.

A steep reduction in state funds would be felt more severely in poor counties because school districts there have nowhere else to turn. Not only would LCPS have to plug a hole created by the loss of funding for more than 40 classroom positions, it would also be hamstrung on a raft of improvement initiatives. Try as they might, school systems lacking financial support cannot help but fall behind.

The House plan recognizes this reality as well as the state’s obligation to provide a quality education to all school-age residents. The Senate robs Peter to pay Paul in order to fund the politically popular pay raises for teachers. The House, however, provides for a smaller raise without taking an axe to the rest of the budget for public education.

It is more than a little weird that money for the raises is projected to come from increased lottery sales — today’s News & Observer editorial calls the plan “zany” — but from where we’re sitting in Lenoir County, betting on the lottery looks better than being shut out of the game.