A hint of things to come
Tuesday, November 9th, 2010
By Chris Fitzsimon
If you are wondering how the new Republican majorities in the General Assembly will handle the state’s $3.5 billion shortfall next year, a few statements in the last few days provide some clues.
The leading candidates for House Speaker, Representative Paul Stam and Representative Thom Tillis, appeared this weekend on the WRAL-TV public affairs show On the Record along with NC GOP Chair Tom Fetzer.
The program started with a news story about the potential cuts to services to people with disabilities and included a comment from an official with the ARC of North Carolina, a group that provides services to the disabled and advocates on their behalf. She said that deep cuts on top of the ones made in the last two years would be devastating and pointed out that 7,000 people are currently on the waiting list for help.
A few minutes after the story, host David Crabtree asked Fetzer if it would be a public relations problem for the Republican Party if its legislative leaders followed through on their pledge not to raise any new revenue to address the shortfall and made it up by deeply slashing the state budget and cutting services like the ones featured in the story.
Public relations may have been an odd thing to ask about, but Fetzer’s response was far more troubling. He told Crabtree that “we need people to get in charge and do what’s best for the whole state of North Carolina and if some special interests get trimmed along the way, then so be it.”
The message was clear. People with disabilities are a special interest. Anybody who opposes the Republicans’ efforts to cut 20 percent or more from education and human services must be a special interest too, people with a mental illness, teachers, at-risk kids.
It’s not much different than what the head of the Locke Foundation calls advocates for people who need services or teachers who speak out for smaller classes—he lumps then all together in what he calls the “spending lobby” in Raleigh, people he thinks should be ignored or run over when it comes time to write the budget.
Tillis said shortly after the election last week that the cuts the Republicans plan to make could lead to “legitimate, sad stories about people who may end up suffering,” presumably Fetzer’s “special interests.”
Stam told Crabtree that the university system is likely to suffer severe cuts next year and that may be an understatement. Another staff member of the Locke Foundation, whose right-wing budget proposals are a blueprint for Republicans, told a reporter that some campuses of the UNC system may have to be consolidated or closed.
That was the worst case scenario outlined by outgoing UNC President Erskine Bowles last week at his last meeting with the Board of Governors.
But it’s not a worst case scenario at all to the folks at the Locke Foundation and the Republican leaders with their dogmatic refusal to consider raising new revenue. It’s an opportunity, a chance to dismantle the government they loathe, regardless of the damage and pain it creates. Calling the most vulnerable people in the state a special interest hardly makes it okay to hurt them.
A must read for new lawmakers
By Chris Fitzsimon
The debate about how to address the state’s anticipated $4 billion budget shortfall has already begun in next year’s General Assembly, two months before the new Republican majorities in the House and Senate are sworn in and elect their leaders.
Republican legislators are repeating their vow to address the massive shortfall with cuts alone and refuse to consider raising any new revenue to protect vital state programs from devastating reductions.
It’s a point reinforced almost daily by the radical right-wing propaganda machine that provided the ideologically-biased polls and anti-government talking points for Republicans throughout the recent campaign.
Slash and burn is the plan, $4 billion worth, from public schools, mental health programs, and health care services for children and the disabled. That’s what coming. You can count on it.
The head of Raleigh’s most well-known right-wing think tank, a place that Republicans routine look to for direction, said Thursday that the new majorities should eliminate both of the state’s national recognized early childhood programs, Smart Start and More at Four because there’s no evidence that they work.
He said the money saved could be used better elsewhere, like to balance the budget. The comments are not surprising. Similar comments have been made in recent months by a long list of Republicans who seem to have very little understanding of what the programs do and how they work.
Ironically, the comments came roughly an hour after a comprehensive study of More at Four from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-CH was released at the State Board of Education meeting.
Every legislator should read it. Researchers found that low income children who attended the More at Four pre-k program narrowed the achievement gap with their middle-class counterparts by as much as 40 percent by the third-grade.
That’s exactly what More at Four was designed to do, help at-risk kids catch up in the early grades so they don’t begin school far behind their classmates and become more likely to struggle throughout their school years and eventually drop out.
The report is just the latest confirmation by the Institute that More at Four works. Previous studies have shown that the program provides high-quality classroom learning that leads to high rates of achievement growth, particularly by kids most at risk of failure.
Critics of More at Four, including the right-wing think tanker who dismissed it so cavalierly Thursday, often claim that whatever gains children make from the program fade away as the kids get older.
It’s an odd criticism to make. No one believes that at-risk kids stop being at risk when they leave kindergarten. Many of the factors that caused them to fall behind in the first place are still there. But at least now the kids have a fighting chance and can benefit from additional help to keep them on track.
The claim also ignores compelling evidence from studies that have followed kids from pre-k programs into adulthood and found their lives to be vastly better than at-risk kids who did not have the chance to catch up before kindergarten.
There was plenty of evidence before this latest report was released that pre-k programs like More at Four make an important difference in children’s lives.
The new study that involves a data set of more 200,000 kids ought to remove any doubts, even among members of the new conservative majorities.
All they have to do is open their minds and take an honest look.