It's the middle of summer, and we should have a state budget by now, but we don't. In fact, the Republicans who control the General Assembly, having failed to enact a budget by the start of the fiscal year July 1, took last week off and headed for the hills and the beaches.
No worries, though! They left behind a continuing resolution funding state programs through Aug. 14 at similar levels to last year. They thus have 90 more days to get their act—and a 2015–'16 budget—together. It's likely, though, that the extra time won't change a thing. One Republican budget-maker, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, cracked that they'll still be at it on Halloween.
• The state is being held hostage by Senate Republicans. In this budget game, House Republicans don't count for much. Neither does Gov. Pat McCrory, also a Republican.
• Senate Republicans are determined to squeeze the life out of public education in general, but especially K–12 public schools.
• With that in mind, they may—I predict will—drag budget talks into autumn, too late for the schools to use any new money that McCrory and the House are willing to appropriate.
• Only then will the Senate GOP relent and throw in some dimes, which will let them say: "See, we raised funding, but the schools are too inept to spend it."
Two other points:
• We are—how can I put this delicately?—sinking below South Carolina. That's right. South Carolina now leads North Carolina on teacher pay and K–12 spending. Worse, South Carolina is starting to reap the benefits of better schools and has blown by North Carolina on the prime measure of economic health, median household income.
• While gerrymandered legislative districts make dislodging most of the Senate Republicans virtually impossible, three of the 33—compared with 17 Democrats—were elected from Wake County districts. And they can be unseated in 2016. Sens. John Alexander, Chad Barefoot and Tamara Barringer are "R-Wake." Remember those names.
Let's go back. The House passed a 2015–'16 budget and sent it to the Senate, which passed a different, smaller budget. The gap is $700 million ($22.2 billion versus $21.5 billion). The most consequential difference is in K–12 funding, the biggest line item at $8 billion-plus. There, the House would spend $343 million more than the Senate.
Now, there are other differences, including a major tiff over whether to mess up Medicaid, the second biggest line item, or leave it be—Senate: mess up; House: leave be—and how much more to cut taxes.
But the real battleground is public schools, and here's why: North Carolina has dropped almost to the bottom on K–12 funding. Figures from the National Education Association for 2013–'14 show us 47th of 50 states and Washington, D.C., spending $8,632 per pupil compared to the national average of $11,355. South Carolina is 35th, at $9,445. (These figures include federal and local supplements.) Our teachers' pay is 47th; South Carolina's is 37th.
According to the U.S. Census, in 2013 the median household income in North Carolina ranked 47th out of 51. That's five spots behind South Carolina, which was 50th not long ago.
The NEA also released some estimates of 2014–'15 school spending. While less definitive, they indicate that North Carolina isn't gaining on the nation—and now trails South Carolina by more than $1,000 per student.
Compared to pre-recession levels of six years ago, North Carolina employs 4,800 fewer classroom teachers and 7,000 fewer teachers' assistants. (The Senate's budget envisions cutting 5,000 TA positions while adding 2,000 teachers.) But they're teaching 43,000 more students.
And just in case you're thinking, "Well, there's still Mississippi and Alabama," we trail them, too. North Carolina is last in the Southeast in K–12 funding, according to the NEA.
Our schools are bleeding because of Republican policies, but in the House, most Republicans are willing to apply a tourniquet and a pint of additional funding. Not so the Senate Republicans, and I think the best explanation why comes from Carter Wrenn, longtime political confidant of Jesse Helms and a man who knows his GOP.
Wrenn calls the Senate Republicans "Bull Mooses," not because they're like Teddy Roosevelt, but because they're willing to trample the most basic tenets of American self-government to get what they want.
"Bare-knuckled" power is their thing, Wrenn wrote last week when the Senate GOP imposed new election districts, all gerrymandered, on the irate citizens of Greensboro. Recalcitrant House Republicans were bullied into going along.
"That 'government derives its power from the people' is about as sacred a principle as Americans have," Wrenn wrote on the Talking Politics blog. "[But] a Bull Moose set on expanding his fiefdom is no respecter of tradition."
To hear the Senate Republicans tell it, traditional public schools are a form of public welfare to be stamped out in favor of private schools—with taxpayer vouchers—and maybe some charter schools that are public in name only.
You don't agree? They don't give a damn.
And the sad fact is, no budget can pass without them.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Education held hostage."