The Republicans in the legislature are taking an unprecedented approach to ramming through a budget drawn behind closed doors and unopen to debate or amendments. Cynics who watch the legislature say the budget is always drawn behind closed doors. Maybe so, but it’s not stuck in a conference bill and, until now, it went through committee hearings that would change it and give it plenty of sunlight.
This budget leaves it up to reporters and legislative observers to uncover the shenanigans. And there are plenty. The budget shows large cash payoffs to the GOP base. A Christian boys’ camp gets $250,000. Anti-abortion organizations get their cut to the tune of more than $1 million.
The biggest change, though, is a policy-shifting provision that would continue GOP efforts to move funding for public schools from the state to municipalities. A provision that caught education advocates of all persuasions off guard allows municipalities to raise property taxes to pay for schools. Ultimately, the GOP legislators will almost certainly tell towns and counties, “If you want more for your schools, raise the property tax, but don’t ask us.” They’ve been trying to slowly place the burden for school funding on local government for years. This policy is just more dramatic.
North Carolina made a smart decision back in the Great Depression to put the responsibility for schools in the hands of the General Assembly. In a state that has pockets of extreme poverty, the measure ensures that low-income areas can still offer quality education for their children. It’s enshrined in the state constitution and is essential to maintaining good public schools in North Carolina.
The provision in the GOP budget bill was ostensibly added to allow two towns in Mecklenburg County to establish town-run charter schools, but it could have loads of unintended, or possibly cynical, consequences. As Scott Mooneyham of the League of Municipalities said in the News & Observer, “This is a monumental policy change in North Carolina that is receiving very little vetting. Constitutionally the state has a duty to operate and fund schools. … Sometime down the road does this result in a statutory shift of some of that responsibility?”
It’s one thing to add pork to the budget, but policy shifts like this one should be debated openly, not shoved down our throats in an opaque process. Rural residents in poorer counties are once again about to be thrown under the bus with the support of their own legislators, many of whom aren’t sharp enough to see the bus coming. This time, most won’t figure out what happened until it’s too late. The lack of transparency is disturbing and the ideological logic of pushing the financial responsibility for public schools onto the backs of local government dismantles the system of education we’ve built in this state. It also runs contrary to the constitution and the promise of a guaranteed quality education for our children.