This summer, state legislators constructed a budget that undermined public schools, the health care system and the future of many North Carolina children. If legislators reconvene later in the month for a fourth time this year, they should put aside partisan plans to tinker with election law and focus on fixing the mess they made.
They need to restore the penny sales tax, which they allowed to expire, and reinvest in the state’s children.
Inexplicably, legislative budget writers have expressed surprise that their $459 million cut to education has impacted the classroom. Despite their claims that they “protected” teachers or teacher assistants, more than 1,800 classroom educators have lost their jobs as of the end of October. In the face of such a staggering cut in funding, school districts had no other choice but to let teachers go.
The loss of teachers is directly impacting the quality of education in North Carolina schools. In some middle schools, school counselors are now doubling as teachers, even though many of them have no prior classroom experience. In this dual role, counselors are required to dole out bad grades and discipline students, actions that undermine their role as a confidant. As a result, students get neither a quality teacher nor a trusted counselor.
The mess doesn’t end with our education system. The state’s Medicaid program, which provides health care for nearly one million North Carolina children, is also in trouble. Legislative budget writers made deep cuts to Medicaid and claimed the money would be made up through “efficiencies.” Healthcare advocates said it wasn’t possible, but legislators refused to listen. Recently, Lanier Cansler, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, informed a legislative committee that the state cannot meet the unreasonable spending targets set by the legislature.
Now DHHS is looking to make draconian cuts to Medicaid that will put health care providers out of business and, more importantly, reduce access to health care for children.
The list goes on – early childhood education, juvenile justice, and mental health services all took hits in the budget, and we’re now beginning to see the consequences.
These budget cuts do not confine themselves to their respective divisions of state government; rather, each cut compounds the next and increases the strain on families and children. Taken together, these decisions by state legislators create a bleak future for North Carolina’s children.
Here’s a story that will become all too familiar:
Lacking adequate prenatal care, a child is born underweight and with substantial complications. Later, as a toddler, the child develops a learning disability that goes undetected. He struggles in the classroom and frequently acts out in school. As a teenager with undiagnosed mental health issues, he gets into a cafeteria fight that lands him in a youth detention center. He will leave the detention center with untreated mental illness and without the education he needs to get a job and stay out of trouble.
Ask an educator, health care provider or anyone else who works with kids, and that person will tell you that this scenario is real. It is the future of North Carolina.
We can do better. When legislators return later this month, they should reinstate the penny sales tax that they cut last year. With the addition of more than $1 billion in revenue that would be generated by the penny sales tax, legislators can restore all cuts to K-12 schools, Medicaid, and early education, while substantially mitigating cuts in other areas.
We owe it to our kids to give them every opportunity to succeed. Our state legislators will decide whether or not that happens.
Rob Thompson is the Executive Director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children