With state leaders bickering over the budget and schools desperate for a firm spending plan, House and Senate leaders are reportedly close to a breakthrough on two education-related sticking points.
The Senate’s original budget would have cut about 5,000 elementary school teaching assistants and funding for high school driver’s education courses. The House wants to keep both funded.
The Senate, the more aggressive budget-whacker of the two bodies, now says it will let both programs survive. Its price for backing away from the chopping block? A cool $30 million. That’s the pot of education money that would be left in play if the deal goes through.
And who’d control it? The Senate’s budget writers.
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The House’s chief budget negotiator, Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said Tuesday that he’s considering the offer. As much as he must dislike the thought of giving the Senate a $30 million blank check – if indeed that’s what this is – he still ought to take the deal.
Teachers, especially in high-poverty schools, need good assistants. They help extend one-on-one or small-group help to struggling learners, among other things. And taking driver’s ed off the books will only lead to more crashes and higher auto insurance premiums.
The (Raleigh) News & Observer reports that the deal would likely mean the end of several House-backed budget proposals, including a $12 million effort to boost broadband and wireless in schools, and $4.3 million in bonuses for teachers of advanced courses.
Given the Senate’s brand of hardball, the House should fight those battles another day.
House leaders should not, however, accept the Senate’s additional demand that the teacher assistant money be used exclusively for teacher assistants. The state previously let local school systems use that money for other needs if they deemed it necessary. Rural Johnston County, where you’d expect to find less-crowded classrooms and longer bus routes, wisely put it toward transportation costs.
As a general rule, a budget line item should pay a specific expense. But in some cases – like this one – flexibility makes for wiser financial stewardship. That argument should resonate with Senate leaders, provided their strong fiscal conservatism isn’t trumped by their equally strong egos.
The News & Observer’s Colin Campbell reported Wednesday afternoon that House members hadn’t signaled final agreement on the deal, possibly due to concerns about flexibility in the teacher assistant fund.
If they’re digging in their heels, it’s understandable. The Senate turned their 2 percent state employee pay hike plan into a measly $750 one-time bonus.
Give a little, senators. Get this budget done, already.