North Carolina’s chief public school administrator may be silent on Senate budget cuts to North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction, but the leader of the state’s top school board says the proposal has the potential to deal major harm to poor and low-performing school districts.
“There’s no question about that,” State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey told Policy Watch Thursday. “A 25 percent cut, which I can’t believe will be the result of this process, would cut into very essential services for particularly the rural and poor counties.”
Cobey is referring to the Senate budget’s  25 percent cut in operations funds for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), a loss of more than $26 million over two years that, strangely, has produced no public reaction from the leader of the department.
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, a Republican who took office in January, has not responded to multiple Policy Watch inquiries on the matter, even as state lawmakers discuss a severe funding reduction for the agency charged with overseeing the state’s public schools.
On Thursday, Cobey expressed some surprise at the lack of reaction from Johnson’s office.
“He should be very concerned too,” Cobey said. “Because he’s the guy that manages the agency.”
The cuts may be most impactful in poor counties because much of the agency’s outreach focuses on professional development and intervention in low-performing districts.
“I sure hope the proposed cut to the agency is scaled back to a much lower percentage,” said Cobey. “Because the money that we have in the agency is for delivering services to the school districts and the charter schools. If those services are very important to them, I would hope and also believe that after the House and Senate looks more carefully that they will come up with a much smaller number.”
Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C.,  a nonpartisan, K-12 policy and research group, agreed with Cobey’s assessment.
“Unfortunately, cuts at the Department of Public Instruction and, frankly, at the central offices for our school systems, have been a staple for our Senate budgets in recent years,” said Poston. “It seems to be an easy talking point about faceless bureaucrats and waste instead of talking about the services that these dedicated educators provide. DPI provides a great deal of support for rural schools systems that are poor and often struggling school systems.”
The criticism from Cobey is particularly remarkable in North Carolina’s politically polarized climate. Cobey is an ex-GOP congressman and former state Republican party chair appointed to the State Board of Education in 2013 by former Gov. Pat McCrory, although he’s clashed publicly with GOP leadership  in the legislature in recent years.
Today, his board is mired in a lawsuit over the constitutionality of a December vote  by the legislature to grant more budgetary and hiring powers to Johnson.
The reduction in operations funding for DPI comes on top of $25 million in cuts to central office administration for local districts over the two years of the biennial budget. That’s about a 10 percent cut in 2017-2018 and a nearly 16 percent cut in 2018-2019.
Lawmakers also moved to eliminate four positions reporting to the state board, including a legislative director’s post board members filled just weeks ago.
It’s unclear how the department would weather the lost funding at this time. DPI officials have had little time to respond to the proposed budget, which was released around midnight Wednesday, just hours before hastily-convened Senate committees were asked to vote on the 361-page document.
Some lawmakers complained that they didn’t know the most intricate details of the budget proposal they were voting on this week. The plan was developed behind closed doors by Senate Republican leadership, and while it includes long-promised raises for teachers and principals, the budget has spurred a rising chorus of critics among public school advocates  in the days since its release.
Leaders with the N.C. Association of Educators  (NCAE), which lobbies for teachers in Raleigh, blasted Republican leadership in the General Assembly this week over what they describe as insufficient funding for public schools. They point out the state’s per-pupil spending and national ranking actually declined from 42nd to 43rd in this year’s report from the nonpartisan National Education Association , a leading barometer for school funding.
NCAE President Mark Jewell criticized lawmakers again Friday, hours after senators held a 3 a.m. vote to approve the $22.9 billion spending package.
“The Senate budget shortchanges students by making little investment in resources, it shortchanges our most experienced educators for the second year in a row with no raise but skyrocketing health care costs, and it makes recruiting educators even more difficult by denying them health care when they retire,” Jewell said. “Instead of investing in schools, Senate Republicans continue to insist on big tax giveaways to corporations and millionaires.”
Indeed, perhaps the budget’s most controversial proposal is a plan for $1 billion in tax cuts, which includes a sizable reduction in the corporate income tax rate. Democrats say it hamstrings state leaders’ efforts to fund North Carolina agencies and core services, particularly in the public schools.
However, Senate Republicans argued this week that their conservative budgets and tax cuts bolster the state’s economy and keep more money in the hands of residents and business-owners.
“We have found ways to meet those priorities without spending as much money as the governor proposes,” Senate President Phil Berger , R-Guilford, Rockingham, said this week.
This week, Senate Republicans also touted their rising investment in public schools while diverting money from bureaucracies like DPI, a frequent target of the chamber’s GOP lawmakers in recent years.
Before this week’s proposed funding reductions, state lawmakers had already handed down more than $19 million in cuts to DPI since 2009-2010, forcing the agency to lay off workers and limit services .
“It hurts us in our capacity to help improve student achievement and growth in schools that really need it,” former Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told Policy Watch last August.
Last year, DPI’s District and School Transformation  office reported marked improvements in low-performing districts where it has intervened since 2009, lowering dropout rates and lifting roughly 80 percent of the districts served from the bottom five percent of schools in the state.
Despite that, DPI funds have remained on the chopping block in recent years, and seem likely to do the same in the legislature’s new budget plan.
Poston says the legislature’s position on central office staff and DPI officials is a slight to the people who work in these positions.
“They go to work every day trying to help our children succeed and they tend to be an annual whipping boy for cuts,” he said. “Not only is it unfair, it’s also unwise given the challenges that our school districts face with recruiting and staffing.”
The Senate budget now proceeds to the state House of Representatives, which has been somewhat less caustic when it comes to DPI leadership in recent years, although most at the legislature agree that the department is likely bound for significant cuts.
Cobey, however, is maintaining some optimism.
“It’s a process,” he says. “And I’m always optimistic that, at the end of the day, people will be considerate of what the real needs are.”