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Real commitment or empty rhetoric?

By Chris Fitzsimon

When Gov. Beverly Perdue ordered state agencies to cut another 5 percent of their budgets two weeks ago, the executive order exempted Medicaid, public schools and Health Choice, the state’s health care program for children.

The cuts came a week after Perdue signed the state budget that made almost $2 billion in cuts, most of them to education and human services. News reports about the budget in the past few weeks have featured overcrowded classrooms, struggling health clinics and frightened families of people with a mental illness.

There are plenty more horror stories to come as the real impact of the budget cuts comes more into focus. The 5 percent only makes things worse.

Perdue doesn’t appear to include education professionals at the Department of Public Instruction in her exemption for education. That means even fewer people to support local school systems.

And she doesn’t hold nonprofits harmless either, even the ones that play vital roles in helping at-risk students stay in school and off streets. Communities in Schools was cut 5 percent by Perdue after state lawmakers reduced its state funding by 10 percent.

The group’s mission is simple ­­­ — keep kids from dropping out of school and help them graduate so they don’t begin their adult lives facing the almost impossible task of trying to find a decent job without a diploma.

There is plenty of work to do. The latest figures from DPI show that almost 30 percent of ninth-graders do not receive a diploma four years later. Almost 40 percent of black students don’t graduate.

And those numbers may be on the rosy side. Education Week’s latest Diplomas Count report released in June found that only 63 percent of the class of 2006 graduated in North Carolina and just 38 percent of black males earned their diplomas.

It is a scandal of unfathomable proportions that state officials finally admitted to a few years ago. This year’s budget includes money for dropout-prevention grants. But considering the record of Communities in Schools, cutting its state funding by 10 percent is absurd. Cutting it by another 5 percent borders on the insane.

Ninety-seven percent of the more than 4,000 students identified by Communities in Schools as potential dropouts two years ago stayed in school and 88 percent of the students tracked for attendance problems improved their attendance.

One of the keys to this success is a realization that many state policymakers have yet to come to in their abstract policy debates and talking points. Every single student at risk of dropping out is unique. Each student has different needs and it takes individual attention to address them.

Communities in Schools president Linda Harrill says the number of kids who can’t afford school supplies has doubled since the economic downturn. The stories are heart-wrenching: students whose teeth hurt everyday and have never been to a dentist, students who want to quit school and go to work because their parents have been laid off and can’t find a job, students who can’t afford shoes that fit or can’t study at night because mom has turned off the lights to save a few dollars on the electric bill.

If state leaders really want to improve the scandalous graduation rate and save kids’ lives, then they ought to start acting like it. That would mean more funding for programs like Communities in Schools, not less, budget crisis or not.

If Perdue really wants to exempt education from further cuts, she ought to exempt the programs that make education possible for many kids. Then she ought to rethink the cuts in human services. One of the most important ways to help poor students in school is to help their families at home with services that allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.
Either we are serious about saving half of a generation of kids or we are not.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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