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A themeless pudding of an education budget

The public education section of the General Fund budget making its way into law calls to mind the often-quoted wise-crack of Winston Churchill: “Take away that pudding – it has no theme.”

With due deference to state Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), the legislature’s resident Churchill aficionado, who has strived to forge a coherent education policy, the education budget reflects no coordinated strategy, no unified vision of what is in the best interests of students – in essence, no theme.

As I have discussed here previously, education policymaking in North Carolina emerges from a complex interplay of multiple power centers. Perhaps it is too much to expect legislators, elected from districts and accustomed to trade-offs and transactions, to produce little more than a “compromise’’ between House and Senate versions of a budget.

Two weeks ago, I outlined four big-picture trends that define the foreseeable future: supply of teacher-talent, supply of school leadership, the rise of a “kaleidoscope society,’’ and resegregation. While the budget takes useful steps – such as extending reading camps to first and second graders and restoring experience-based pay to teachers – it hardly moves the needle in responding to these challenges.

The budget illustrates the governance – and political – constraints that block an education program that would be even modestly transformational. It may seem counterintuitive but the constraints begin with a legislature that has a veto-proof Republican majority in both House and Senate. This political reality ripples across the education policy making apparatus.

As an education leader, Gov. Pat McCrory speaks, when he does, with a muffled voice. He has had vetoes overridden by a legislature dominated by members of his own party. His proposed budget did little to guide legislative deliberations, and McCrory turned his attention to advocating for a major infrastructure bond issue.

The Department of Public Instruction has an elected Democrat, June Atkinson, as its superintendent. DPI, too, issued its budget proposals, which got little attention. The budget deals DPI yet another reduction in its appropriations, and a separate bill would shift authorization of charter schools from DPI to the State Board of Education.

Over the years, DPI has been so diminished by budget cuts and end-runs that perhaps the time has arrived to renew consideration of converting it into a department under the governor. Democrats might flinch at the potential of losing an elected officeholder, and yet making DPI the governor’s responsibility might compel greater gubernatorial leadership.

In education policy, the voices of voters, parents, and an array of associations – of teachers, superintendents, school boards, and principals, as well as advocacy groups – matter. Public-opinion pushback resulted in restoring funding for teachers’ assistants and drivers’ education. In today’s charged political atmosphere, some advocates rail about the “war on public education’’ at the risk of adding to anxiety about the quality of our schools. Others keep their heads down, try to make incremental progress, and not antagonize powerful Republican legislators for fear of budgetary and/or policy retribution.

As the legislative minority, Democrats have had little influence on the budget. Nor have they produced an alternative education plan to enlighten voters. A generation ago, when Democrats controlled state government, Republicans and other advocates of a two-party system extolled the virtues of a healthy debate between competing perspectives. Now that they control state government, Republicans don’t extol healthy debate across party lines so much. 

The huge Republican majority, meanwhile, has divided, as huge majorities tend to do, into competing factions and rival personalities. Yes, the budget was enacted on straight-party votes, with Republican legislators falling in line. But the session itself featured the “polarization’’ of the GOP majority. It got to the point that a Republican legislator, in a private moment, wondered aloud, “I’m not sure I know what conservative means anymore.”

The House took the extraordinary step of devoting a few days of hearings to examining and critiquing the Senate budget. The House had proposed a $22.2 billion general fund budget, somewhat more expansive than the Senate’s $21.5 billion proposal. The end-game agreement to meet in the middle had the effect of curtailing the somewhat more forward-pointing House education plan.

Unlike the pudding that Churchill rejected, North Carolina can’t simply order the education budget taken away; its schools need the funding. Eventually, of course, politics will determine whether the state’s education “pudding’’ will have a theme – and North Carolina voters deserve a full-throated debate over schools, over what’s best for young people, and over educational leadership in the 2016 election.

A footnote: As often the case with famous quotes, you can find various versions from different sources. I used the quote as reported in Safire’s Political Dictionary. William Safire, who wrote speeches for President Richard Nixon, later became a conservative columnist for The New York Times. He once described a State of the Union address by President Ronald Reagan as a “themeless pudding.”

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.