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McCrory's education budget is deceptive

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Gov. Pat McCrory's budget is not what it seems. It's not even what you've been told it is.

"McCrory's budget: hires 1,800 more teachers..." trumpeted The News & Observer headline last Wednesday when the 300-plus-page tome was released. You can read a nearly identical sentence in the press release McCrory's office issued that day, and in plenty of other news accounts.

But that doesn't make it so. An INDY Week analysis of budget documents shows that McCrory's 1,800 teachers may never materialize. Based on other cuts hidden in the budget, McCrory's small army of teachers could dwindle to less than 200.

North Carolina ostensibly has "added teachers," according to previous budgets for the last three academic years. That's because proposed budgets allocate teachers according to increases in student population. As the number of students rises, so does the number of teachers allocated in the budget. McCrory's budget is no different.

However, there's a hitch.

"It's important to say that an increase in teachers is not the same thing as an increase in services, when you have more students to serve," says Alexis Schauss, a fiscal analyst at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Moreover, just because the budget allocates for more teachers doesn't mean they get hired.

North Carolina has nearly 4,000 fewer teachers than it did before the recession, despite an increase of more than 16,000 students during the same time.

When the recession hit, legislators instituted "discretionary cuts," a phenomenon one legislative staffer called "the elephant in the room."

Here's how they work:

The state allocates x dollars to a school district for teachers, y dollars for teacher assistants, z dollars for books, and so on. Then the state requests that districts return some of that money (in Wake County, for instance, it was around $36 million this year). Districts are allowed to use "discretion" about where to make these cuts.

This year, local school districts across the state were forced to give back a combined $360 million. About two-thirds of the money— $241 million—came directly out of funds that would have paid for teachers.

Based on the state's average salary and benefits, that equates to roughly 4,300 teachers­—almost enough to get North Carolina back to reasonable student-teacher ratios that existed before discretionary cuts went into effect.

McCrory's 1,800 teachers, should they materialize, won't even begin to do that.

That's because McCrory's budget doesn't eliminate discretionary cuts; it increases them to $376 million.

"It's a huge concern for educators when cuts are pushed down to the local level, requiring tough decisions," says Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. "It's almost like we giveth, but we taketh away at the same time."

Roughly $45 million of the discretionary cuts returned by school districts this year went directly against money that would've hired teacher assistants. School districts likely won't be able to trim that money again, since McCrory's budget involuntarily cuts 3,000 teacher assistants.

For example, Durham Public Schools returned more than $3 million in teacher assistant funding against its discretionary cuts this year—about 96 people. Next year, the district will have to find new places to cut that money under McCrory's education budget.

If the discretionary cuts that affected teacher assistant funding last year spill over into teacher funding this year, North Carolina would add not 1,800 teachers over the next two years—but fewer than 200 teachers—despite a much bigger increase in students.

The trims could come from other places, too. A major talking point of McCrory's budget is the $43 million he adds to digital learning over the next two years. Local school districts could use that allotment to pay down discretionary cuts.

Those cuts don't even account for teacher assistant funding that school systems transferred in order to pay for more teachers. For instance, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools funded more than 300 teachers this year using money it transferred from its teacher assistant allotment, according to DPI.

That likely won't be an option next year, given McCrory's cuts to teacher assistants. The nonexistent teacher assistant allotments will stifle local districts' ability to transfer that money to save teacher jobs. That could further eat away at new teacher hires in McCrory's budget.

Most Triangle school districts have weathered the recession relatively well, because of rainy day funds built up during prerecession growth.

"We've been able to use our size as a district and our budgeting prowess to weather a lot of personnel cuts," says Wake County school board member Christine Kushner. "But at some point we're going to get hit by the effects of these cuts."

This article appeared in print with the headline "1,800 teachers? Not even close."

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