LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: We'll be updating this morning as negotiations continue on a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, all 50 states have passed their budgets and a have cut spending with education getting hit the hardest. This has put key school reform policies and programs at risk. In North Carolina, for example, the cuts are so severe, Governor Beverly Perdue warns they will do generational damage to public education.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Deep cuts in funding for education were inevitable in North Carolina for three basic reasons. The state is $2.5 billion in the hole. Education takes up over half of the state budget and there's a new Republican majority in the legislature
State Senator PHIL BERGER: When Republicans ran last fall, we made three basic promises.
SANCHEZ: This is Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger at a recent news conference
BERGER: One, we were not going to allow the temporary taxes to be extended. Two, that we would reduce spending. And three, that we would protect the classroom.
SANCHEZ: Across the state though, school officials say they will be forced to shut down early childhood programs, lay off teachers and virtually eliminate training and professional development for teachers.
Nonsense, says Berger.
BERGER: I looked outside this morning and the sky was not falling. This is a responsible, reasonable budget to move North Carolina forward.
SANCHEZ: Forward? Not quite, says Governor Beverly Purdue.
Governor BEVERLY PERDUE: North Carolina is going backwards on education. We have just been told that we just moved to 49th in the nation in how we fund public schools - 49th.
SANCHEZ: Based on her staff's calculations, Perdue says all but one state - Utah - will spend a higher percentage of their budget on education than North Carolina this coming year.
It's a remarkable drop for a state once celebrated for investing in cutting-edge reforms that have led to higher test scores, higher graduation rates and highly regarded teacher training programs. Take for instance North Carolina's Center for the Advancement of Teaching, or NCCAT. It lost half of its $6 million budget.
Its a huge blow says Jennifer Facciolini, North Carolina's teacher of the year, because NCCAT rescues teachers on the brink of burning out.
JENNIFER FACCIOLINI: I hate to sound, you know, cliche. But it helps us fall in love with our jobs again. It helps us to remember why we went into the profession.
SANCHEZ: In a letter to legislators, Richard Schwartz, a private attorney and member of NCCAT's board, argued that since its creation 25 years ago, NCCAT has helped school districts hold on to their best and brightest teachers.
RICHARD SCHWARTZ: When they get a teacher back from NCCAT. They get back a completely different teacher. They're not only refreshed and revitalized but they come back with all kinds of ideas that they can't wait to spread. And they really become leaders in their schools.
SANCHEZ: Although NCCAT cannot prove that its training has had a direct impact on students' performance, the retention rate of teachers who've been trained by NCCAT is 97 percent. Their test scores on teacher competency tests are significantly higher than the statewide average. That doesn't matter, says Senator Tom Apodaca. He says NCCAT may be doing good work...
State Senator TOM APODACA: But it is hard to justify $6 million per year in these times, and we just can't justify that.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)
SANCHEZ: Outside a children's museum in downtown Raleigh, not far from where lawmakers convene, parents with toddlers and school-age kids seemed anguished about higher taxes versus less money for education.
Vaidehi Desai is a mother of two.
VAIDEHI DESAI: I would pay more taxes and keep the good education. And keep good teachers. I don't want to compromise that good school system we have right now.
SANCHEZ: New York transplant Brian Carter says he moved his family to Raleigh because the area has such good public schools. But he wants lawmakers to cut taxes.
BRIAN CARTER: My personal opinion is if I elected someone who promised to make changes to the economy, I expect them to follow through on those promises, even if it means making those difficult decisions. Sometimes, yes, certain programs, they just need to get eliminated and get cut.
SANCHEZ: A few years ago, really deep education cuts were unthinkable for fear of a backlash - especially among voters with school-age children. But Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, says that's changing.
SCOTT PATTISON: It's really interesting. You're seeing this across the country for the first time in places like North Carolina people are understanding there are trade-offs. We've got to get away from the feeling that, well, K through 12 is important so don't cut it - oh, but don't raise my taxes either.
SANCHEZ: At least two-thirds of the nation's school districts are now in their third year of budgets cuts. It's not clear though how leaner education budgets will affect teacher quality and other reforms mandated by federal law under No Child Left Behind, a law that was already fraying well before the economy went into a tailspin.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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