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An advocacy group behind a controversial push to bring private schools vouchers to North Carolina would benefit from a new initiative to  encourage charter school growth in North Carolina’s rural counties.

The House’s latest budget proposal, revealed Sunday night and available here, seeks to give Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina nearly $1 million over the next two years to encourage public charter schools to open up in rural areas of the state.

No such provision existed in the Senate version or  Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget.

PEFNC has largely been known in the state for its backing of a tax credit scholarship program which would allow taxpayer dollars to fund scholarships for low-income children to attend private and religious schools. The House budget also funds that proposal and would divert more than $50 million from public schools to the private educational market over the next two years, according to House budget documents.

PEFNC’s “public charter school accelerator” program seeks in increase the number of charter schools, which are public schools funded by taxpayers but operate outside the traditional public schools system. Supporters of charter schools say the charter school model allows families more educational choices while avoiding the bureaucracy that mires many public schools while critics say the schools are less diverse than traditional public schools and drains public schools of needed resources.

The $1 million proposed in the House budget ($464,000 each year) would allow PEFNC to issue $100,000 grants to schools but is limited to counties that have lagged behind the state in student achievement (where less than 65 percent of a county’s students have passed end-of grade or end-of course tests). It’s not immediately clear how many counties in the state meet those criteria.

It also requires PEFNC to match the state funding with outside grants.

PEFNC and DPI officials did not immediately return calls for comment.

The House budget also included several cuts that will affect the rural (and non-rural) public schools, including cuts to teacher’s assistant funding by $53 million over the next two years and the elimination of pay bonuses for new teachers with master’s degrees.

News headlines have made it seem as if the recently-passed House budget for the upcoming fiscal year restores budget cuts included in the legislature’s budget last year.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Case in point—the Health & Human Services portion of the House budget proposal for FY 12-13.  This is the area of the state budget that touches the lives of virtually every North Carolinian from birth to old age and makes sure our food is safe, our children thrive early, seniors have access to prescription drugs and quality, affordable health care, and people with disabilities have the supports they need to contribute to our communities.

The House budget passed this week adds back in funding to the Health & Human Services budget for FY 12-13 to the tune of a 3.65% increase over the continuation budget passed in 2011.  While any expansion funding for areas hit deeply by cuts is better than no expansion, a funding jump in the single digits is not a resounding victory.  It’s just a small salvo for a few program areas and too little, too late.  For most programs, the expansion items fall far short of making up for the cuts in their entirety.

To dive a little deeper:

Early Childhood: the House budget includes a $15 million recurring increase for NC Pre-K, which should open up at least 1,700 new slots.  However, this funding just goes halfway in making up the $32 million cut for NC Pre-K included in the continuation budget.  Smart Start, which was cut by $37 million in 2011 saw a minor expansion of $3.5 million to test literacy programs in some of its local programs. Read More