RALEIGH — Unlike their counterparts in the state House, Senate Republicans rolled out their state budget plan with a pretty good talking point.
“We have to reform what we’re doing when what we’re doing isn’t working,” said Sen. Harry Brown, the chamber’s majority leader.
Brown, of course, was talking about the public schools, responding to the criticism about cuts to those schools in the Senate’s $19.4 billion state spending plan.
The reform here involved lowering class size in early grades by a single student and language calling for eventually getting to a 1-to-15 teacher-student ratio in those grades.
In fact, budget writers had performed a swap. The Senate budget plan would cut more teaching assistants than the House, eliminating them in first, second and third grades. The House proposed cutting them in the second and third grades.
Eliminating the additional teaching assistants — perhaps as many as 6,000 of them — would save nearly $140 million. But in exchange, the plan calls for hiring 1,100 additional teachers to get to that lower class size. Hiring those teachers would cost about $60 million.
Still, it wasn’t too hard to couch the move as reform. Most everyone likes the idea of lower public school class sizes. Logic dictates that small class sizes translate into more individualized attention from teachers. Studies have suggested that, at certain levels, lower class sizes do improve student performance.
Senate Republicans also delivered the bitter medicine with some sugar. Unlike House Republicans, they had the advantage of putting forward their budget proposal with a fleshed-out tax cut plan that reduces all three state income tax brackets by a quarter percent and provides a small business tax reduction.
So, from a political perspective, the Senate Republicans had a plan that was at least a bit more sellable to the public.
Still, the bulk of the medicine might not taste so good to many North Carolinians.
The Senate schools budget would spend $242 less per pupil than the budget proposal from Gov. Beverly Perdue. It would eliminate some services in the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor, including dental services for adults. It would lay off some environmental regulators. It would do away with the state organization that oversees local Smart Start child development programs and cut those local programs. It would close some prisons and two regional museums.
If those cuts become law, they won’t go unnoticed and unfelt.
Legislative Democrats, meanwhile, have ramped up the rhetoric as the budget process has moved along. Again, the focus is on the public schools.
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Buncombe County Democrat, has been calling the proposals “an attack on public schools in this state.”
Who knew that Democratic and Republican politicians could look at the same thing and come to such different conclusions?
Their conclusions, their rhetoric doesn’t really matter.
Parents of school-age children will decide what these choices really mean when the children walk through the schoolhouse doors next fall.
Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.