By now, all 50 states have passed their budgets and education spending is getting one of the hardest hits. In North Carolina, the cuts are so severe, Gov. Beverly Perdue warns "they will do generational damage" to public education.
Deep cuts in funding for education were inevitable in North Carolina for three basic reasons: The state is $2.5 billion in the hole, education takes up over half of the state budget, and there's a new Republican majority in the legislature.
"When Republicans ran last fall, we made three basic promises," Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger said at a recent news conference. "One, we were not going to allow temporary taxes to be extended. Two, we would reduce spending, and three, that we would protect the classroom."
Across the state, though, school officials say they will be forced to shut down early-childhood programs, lay off teachers and virtually eliminate training and professional development for teachers.
Nonsense, says Berger.
"I looked outside this morning, and the sky was not falling. This is a responsible, reasonable budget to move North Carolina forward," he says.
Perdue says not quite.
"North Carolina is going backwards on education. We have just been told that North Carolina has moved to 49th in the nation in how we fund public schools," she says.
Cuts To Teacher Training
Based on her staff's calculations, Perdue says all but one state, Utah, will spend a higher percentage of their budget on education than North Carolina in the coming year.
It's a remarkable drop for a state once celebrated for investing in cutting-edge reforms that have led to higher test scores, higher graduation rates and highly regarded teacher training programs, like the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT). It lost half of its $6 million budget. It's a huge blow, says North Carolina's teacher of the year, Jennifer Facciolini. She says NCCAT rescues teachers on the brink of burning out.
"I hate to sound cliche, but it helps us fall in love with our jobs again. It helps us to remember why we went into the profession," Facciolini says.
In a letter to legislators, Richard Schwartz, a private attorney and a member of NCCAT's board, argued that NCCAT has helped school districts hold on to their best and brightest teachers since its creation 25 years ago.
"When they get a teacher back from NCCAT, they get back a different teacher. They're not only refreshed and revitalized, but they come back with all kinds of ideas that they can't wait to spread. They become leaders in their schools," Schwartz says.
Although NCCAT cannot prove that its training has had a direct impact on students' performance, the retention rate of teachers who've been trained by NCCAT is 97 percent. Their test scores on teacher competency tests are significantly higher than the statewide average.
That doesn't matter, says Sen. Tom Apodaca. He says NCCAT may be doing good work, "but it is hard to justify $6 million per year. In these times, we just can't justify that."
'There Are Trade-Offs'
Outside a children's museum in downtown Raleigh, not far from where lawmakers convene, parents with toddlers and school-age children seemed anguished about higher taxes versus less money for education.
"I would pay more taxes and keep the good education and keep good teachers," says Vaidehi Desai, a mother of two. "I don't want to compromise that good school system we have right now."
New York transplant Brian Carter says he moved his family to Raleigh because the area has such good public schools, but he wants lawmakers to cut taxes.
"My personal opinion is, if I elected someone who promised to make changes to the economy, I expect them to follow through on those promises, even if it means making those difficult decisions," Carter says. "Sometimes certain programs need to be eliminated and get cut."
A few years ago, really deep education cuts were unthinkable for fear of a backlash, especially among voters with school-age children. Scott Patterson, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, says that's changing.
"It's really interesting. You're seeing this across the country. For the first time in places like North Carolina, people are understanding there are trade-offs," he says. "We've got to get away from the feeling that, 'Well K through 12 is important, so don't cut it, but don't raise my taxes either.'"
At least two-thirds of the nation's school districts are now in their third year of budget cuts. It's not clear, though, how leaner education budgets will also affect teacher quality and other reforms mandated by federal law under No Child Left Behind, a law that was already fraying well before the economy went into a tailspin.