Funding for N.C. Executive Order Snagged in Budget Battle
Gov. Michael F. Easley is sticking by his executive order to expand North Carolina's preschool programs and hire hundreds more teachers, even as the legislature wrangles over whether to pay for the expensive mandates.
The Democratic governor issued the order July 24. He promised districts an additional $54 million to bolster a new state preschool program for disadvantaged 4-year-olds and to further reduce class sizes in kindergarten and 1st grade in the new school year.
The order responds to criticism from the Wake County Superior Court judge overseeing the state's long-running school finance case.
In his ruling in April, Judge Howard E. Manning wrote that North Carolina "must roll up its sleeves, step in, and utilizing its constitutional authority and power over the [local education agencies], cause effective educational change when and where required." ("Do More for Needy Students, N.C. Court Orders," April 10, 2002.)
But, in a letter to the state attorney general last month, Judge Manning expressed dissatisfaction with the state's initial report to the court outlining its plan for improving schools.
"From the state's report it appears that nothing concrete has been done whatsoever to assist [the school districts that need assistance] with implementing a plan ... to improve educational opportunities for at-risk children," the judge wrote.
That report was based on the recommendations of a task force appointed by the governor in May. The panel of education leaders outlined an ambitious plan for raising achievement among the state's 1.2 million schoolchildren, and particularly those who live in poverty. The plan calls for eventually expanding the governor's More at Four preschool program to 40,000 needy children, reducing to 18 the number of students in each K-3 class, and developing an intensive training program for teachers who work in high-need schools. The executive order would increase the number of children served by the preschool program in the coming school year from 1,600 to 7,600.
Gov. Easley wasted little time in using the judge's recent comments to push his education proposals and his plan for a state lottery to help pay for them. The governor first called for a state lottery during his 2000 gubernatorial campaign, saying it could raise up to $250 million for education. Several such proposals have been rejected in the legislature over the past decade.
Following Mr. Easley's executive order, the state education department directed school districts to hire their shares of nearly 600 additional teaching positions for the coming school year. The new teachers would come with a price tag of $28 million. Expanding the preschool program would cost another $26 million.
The governor's bold demands come as the state faces a nearly $2 billion deficit in its $28 billion 2002-03 biennial budget that has forced staff and spending cuts in most state programs and agencies.
State lawmakers have been working in a special session to finish work on the budget for the second year of the 2002-03 biennium.
Mr. Easley dismissed claims that the executive order overstepped his powers. He cited a state law that allows him to expand programs to meet a court order. The state is currently appealing the judge's ruling.
But the governor's move drew angry responses from several state lawmakers.
House Minority Leader N. Leo Daughtry, a Republican, urged the governor in a letter last month to "stop trying to play games with the lottery—and gambling with the future of our children—and talk to us about real ways to achieve school equity."
At least one school system has announced it will not proceed with hiring more teachers until the legislature approves the budget. Other districts are planning to hire teachers on contingency contracts that would require state funding approval to take effect.
Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 22