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Deal in works to restore education funding stripped from budget

A Democratic senator says she is negotiating with Senate leadership on getting funding restored for education programs targeted by an early-morning amendment to the Senate budget Friday. 

“We’ve already started working it out,” said Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, in an interview Monday. “I have some strong commitments from leadership that when the final budget is done, that many of these provisions will have a favorable outcome and be included.” 

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, could not be reached late in the day for comment about the negotiations.

The News & Observer’s Colin Campbell first broke the story, reporting that the amendment — filed by Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson — passed at 3:07 a.m., followed only a few minutes later by a positive final vote on the entire budget. The amendment provides funding for pilot projects related to opioid abuse. But to fund the program, Jackson had to make cuts in other areas including education. The education cuts, in particular, targeted counties represented by democrats. 

The Eastern North Carolina STEM program may be the education program most negatively affected by the amendment’s cuts. It serves low-income students in five school districts in Northampton and Halifax Counties. The amendment takes away funding for the program altogether, stating that “no funds shall be appropriated or allocated for the Eastern North Carolina STEM.” 

Smith-Ingram said the Eastern North Carolina STEM program will not survive unless a deal can be made with Senate leadership. 

“If there is not a tangible commitment, they will have to shut that program down,” Smith-Ingram said. 

Smith-Ingram called the amendment “partisan politics at its worst.” She said the amendment moved too quickly — she was still trying to study it when the vote happened. And she said the presentation of the amendment was confusing because Jackson only discussed the opioid section of the amendment and not the other provisions. 

“The traditional method that we follow is you explain each provision in the amendments,” she said, adding later, “I definitely know that it was insufficient time to be able to review the amendment.”

Senator Jackson could not be reached for comment. 

Shutting down the Eastern North Carolina STEM program would be bad for the community, Smith-Ingram said. 

“It is so incredibly discouraging for students who have limited opportunity,” she said. 

Liz Chen, director of fundraising and outreach for the program, said the program will be able to hold session this summer — its fifth. But unless funding is restored, the program will not continue next year. This year, Chen and her staff received 300 applications and have accepted 120 students so far. 

The program consists of two weeks at Northampton High School where students take classes in science, technology, math, and leadership development. After the first two weeks, 70 students are chosen to spend a third week in residence at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. Chen said students not only learn from the classes there, but they also find out how to manage time on their own and get a sense of life away from home.

“I think it would be a huge … loss for our students,” she said. “This is something that they really look forward to applying for and attending.” 

Chen said that students often come back multiple years and that there is a tremendous amount of community support for the program. In addition, some students who participate in the program actually receive college scholarships as a result of their participation and involvement in the summer program. 

“That is a very real consequence of not having this funding, that students may not continue to receive scholarships that they would benefit from,” she said. 

Though she does not know exactly how it will happen, Smith-Ingram said she is hopeful the education cuts in Jackson’s amendment will be restored and Eastern North Carolina STEM will be able to continue.

“If we can’t bring it back to the floor, then I would hope we would work really hard in the conference to get these provisions back in the budget,” she said. 

Conference is when the two chambers of the legislature meet to rectify their two visions of the budget and come up with a compromise. But before that happens, the House will devise its budget proposal, something lawmakers are working on this week. 

One of those lawmakers is Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union. He is a chair of both the education and education appropriations committees in the House. He said he is baffled by some of the cuts in Jackson’s amendment and the targeting of the Eastern North Carolina STEM program in particular. 

“I don’t understand that at all,” he said. “I’m hopeful that somebody can give me a reason.” 

Horn said he thought there was an understanding between the House and the Senate about the importance of that program, and he called it one of the most successful education efforts in the state. 

“It’s incredible to me … that that would have been taken,” he said. 

Horn said a House budget proposal could be ready for committee meetings next week with the budget possibly hitting the full House floor the week after next. 

After it passes the House, the two chambers of the legislature will have a chance to rectify their differences. And that may be the opportunity for lawmakers to restore the education cuts from Jackson’s amendment. 

“It is unfortunate that our partisan politics played a role in what happened on Friday, and I think calmer minds are prevailing and we realize the disservice that has happened to students,” Smith-Ingram said. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.