Today’s AP article on school budget cuts  minimizes the impact of K-12 education spending cuts by cherry-picking the wealthiest districts and using a flawed methodology to estimate school-level employment losses over the last several years.
The article cites four school districts as examples, three of which are higher-wealth and more urban than the rest of the state – Wake, Durham, and Charlotte-Mecklenberg – as examples of how school districts have responded to state budget cuts. Unfortunately, the impact of state budget cuts to education is not accurately reflected by the response of a handful of school districts that are not representative of an “average” North Carolina school district.
All four school districts profiled in the article are in the top 25 highest per capita income communities in the state . Communities with greater wealth – as measured by any number of indicators, including local tax base, local revenue collections, or median income – are better positioned to offset the negative impact of cuts to state and federal sources of funding by raising local dollars. This is exactly what happened in Buncombe County and Durham County, where referenda to increase local sales taxes were approved in 2011, and in Wake County, where there was the benefit of a substantial reserve. In any case, there are plenty of school districts elsewhere in North Carolina that aren’t weathering the latest rounds of public school spending cuts as easily or as well as the four districts cited in today’s article – like Gaston County  schools, where their revised public school budget cut 100 jobs, and the Rowan-Salisbury schools , where 40 positions were lost, and Watauga County schools , where 8 early childhood education positions were eliminated as a direct result of the state education budget.
Of equal concern is this article’s use of three disparate sources used to cobble together a picture of school employment over the past three fiscal years.
- The FY2009-10 source is taken from DPI’s statistical abstract, where annual school employment is estimated from payroll records. Though imperfect, this is the most reliable source available for statewide school employment data.
- The FY2010-11 source is a one-time survey of LEAs done by DPI that attempted to separate out position eliminations from layoffs. Since they were developed in a completely different way, these numbers aren’t comparable to the FY2009-10 DPI payroll-derived data.
- The FY2011-12 school jobs numbers given are taken from the Current Employment Survey – a third and completely different data source than either of the preceding two sources. Of all three jobs numbers given, this one is the most problematic because it is seasonally unadjusted – meaning, seasonal fluctuations in the workforce being estimated aren’t smoothed over. In North Carolina, in June, most schools aren’t in session. The employment numbers are subsequently much lower. The article rightly calculates the school employment drop shown by the CES as 3,100 jobs from June 2011 to June 2012, but doesn’t account for the fact that measuring the yearly change for a month when schools are at full employment – April 2011 to April 2012, for example – shows a much different year-to-year school job loss – in this case, 5,600.
There’s no question that a better and more timely way to estimate school employment would elevate the current discussion on the impacts of budget decisions in K-12 education. In the meantime, though, caveat emptor when it comes to schools and jobs. However, we shouldn’t limit our discussion of education impacts to school employment alone. The loss of teachers and teaching assistants have implications for the size of classrooms and the amount of attention each student can possibly receive. Massive cuts to other educational supports, like textbooks ($188.9 million cut over the two-year budget) and transportation ($79.6 million over the same two years), also have far-reaching impacts for the effectiveness and quality of students’ education experience. For both budget impacts and public education, the bigger picture deserves our full attention.