News: CJ Exclusives

Leandro, Lottery To Weigh Heavy in 2005

During the 2004 legislative short session 21 public bills and five local education bills passed. As the opening day of the General Assembly’s long session approaches Jan. 26, 2005, observers of the legislative process can expect hundreds of bills to be written.

But which ones will get passed? Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of the N.C. Education Alliance, says, “Only those with political clout even get introduced into committee, much less get passed on the floor and signed off on by the governor.”

The Leandro decision on school equity will play a huge role in education legislation for 2005, Kakadelis said. However, she doesn’t foresee much change in the legislative agenda from 2004. “The education establishment usually remains the same,” Kakadelis said, “no charters, no vouchers, no tax credits, no choice.”

So what, if any, will the hot buttons be for the 2005 session? Gov. Mike Easley, with a decisive victory in November, is loaded with political clout and will be the one to watch. During the gubernatorial campaign, four major goals on the Easley campaign website were education-related. Three of them — expanding the More at Four pre-kindergarten program, combating the dropout program by shrinking school size, and offering high school students an associate’s degree if they stay an extra year — have significant price tags attached to their success.

How will the state pay for these expansion initiatives? Easley is expected again to push hard for the “education lottery.” He will see it as an easy way to not only to pay for his K-12 education initiatives but also to cover the cost of the mandates that are said to come from Leandro.

Lottery proponents and critics are already dusting off and updating statistics and arguments from the last round of lottery debates. Proponents will probably continue to argue that without the lottery the state will be forced to raise taxes to meet educational needs. Opponents, strong in number and diverse in makeup, have defeated the initiative before.

Former UNC President Bill Friday cites two key reasons shared by most lottery opponents. “I oppose a state lottery because it preys on our most vulnerable citizens and puts the state in the gambling business,” he said.

But even though there is no solid plan for paying for the education initiatives, they are sure to make it on the legislative docket. Smaller high schools are not only on the governor’s agenda but are also a top priority of NC Public School Forum and the Education Cabinet, which oversees the New Schools Project funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Earlier this month the New School Project hosted conferences in Raleigh and Charlotte calling for change.

“Communities need to come together to determine the future of their schools,” said New School Project Executive Director Tony Habit in a recent press release. “Parents, teachers, community and business leaders, and the students themselves need to examine how their current high school works, or doesn’t work, in preparing students for college and the workplace. There are models of new high schools that are working — helping all students succeed. These models can help communities see that things can be different, but each community must develop a plan that addresses their specific needs.”

Dropout Prevention is not a new topic for North Carolina. The reality of 40 percent of the state’s students dropping out before graduation should be a priority, and smaller high schools offer a multitude of advantages for students. But with limited resources at both the state and local levels, are smaller schools a realistic answer? There are a multitude of dropout prevention programs in North Carolina, and one, Communities In Schools, is both effective and cost-efficient.

“As business leaders, we know success in the classroom today means we will benefit from a more qualified work force tomorrow,” Habit said. “Communities In Schools is a good investment because its success is measurable. We know students involved in Communities In Schools stay in school and graduate.”

One of the biggest obstacles in fixing education in North Carolina is the constant need to create “signature” programs. First there was Gov. Jim Hunt’s Smart Start preschool program, which is not to be confused with Easley’s More at Four preschool program. During his campaign, Easley touted the success of More at Four, but it will take a number of years before there are statistics to back up that claim. However, that will not stop the governor from making More at Four program expansion as well as his new Learn and Earn program among his top legislative issues.

It seems, with the state of North Carolina’s finances being what they are, that instead of repeatedly creating new programs with significant costs attached and then trying to find ways to fund their creation and implementation, lawmakers have another option. They could identify the state’s most pressing educational needs, find the most effective existing programs, and fully fund those efforts. The bottom line is that everyone will be looking for more money — money the state doesn’t have. Even if the lottery passes, projected resources will not be available this year. And we are back to clout… whoever has it will prevail whether it is the right solution for education or not.