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Save our students or the booster clubs?

By Chris Fitzsimon

Senate finance chairman David Hoyle announced this week that the Senate tax package would be released next Wednesday, and it seems all but certain that it will expand the base of sales and income taxes and lower the overall rates.

The budget the Senate passed last week counts on $500 million from the revenue plan that makes deep cuts in early-childhood programs and public education.

The budget also follows the lead of Gov. Beverly Perdue and eliminates Support our Students (SOS), a 15-year-old afterschool program in 92 counties that works with at-risk kids to keep them out of trouble and off the streets, making it less likely they will drop out of school.

North Carolina is recognized around the country for its two signature preschool programs, Smart Start and More at Four, though both are cut in the Senate budget. But what happens to at-risk kids when they age out of the early-childhood programs, especially if the conditions at home that put them at risk in the first place are still present?

That’s where SOS comes in, helping 14,000 at-risk kids last year. Some of the students have posted comments about their experience on a website created by supporters of the program.

They are summed up succinctly by one entry: “SOS has helped me understand more about how school is important in my life. SOS has put me in a spot where I can now see my life ahead of me.”

Cutting kids off from that extra help and understanding about school saves the state just $6 million in a $20 billion budget.

Every expenditure adds up, and cuts have to come from somewhere, but it’s worth considering what the Senate finds money for instead, most notably $10 million for athletic booster clubs at UNC-CH and N.C. State.

The windfall comes from a change in the law snuck into the budget in 2005 that allows out-of-state athletes to pay in-state tuition, which not only saves the booster clubs millions at taxpayers expense, it also means less in-state slots for North Carolina students. Some families lose twice.

Legislation to repeal the booster club subsidy introduced by Rep. Pricey Harrison and Rep. George Cleveland passed the House last session but the Senate never considered it.

Harrison and Cleveland are trying again this year but face even bigger hurdles. The leaders of two powerful political action committees funded by wealthy supporters of UNC-CH and N.C. State were among the new members of the UNC Board of Governors elected by the Senate this year.

The PACs have given roughly a million dollars between them to legislative candidates in the last four years.

And it’s not just afterschool programs that Senate leaders apparently think are less important than subsidizing the booster clubs with the in-state tuition change.

The Senate budget repeals a tuition waiver at UNC campuses for graduates of the N.C. School of Science and Math, which you can argue is the right policy, but why is it worse to help some high-achieving high school kids than the Rams Club?

The Senate budget also ends free community college classes for senior citizens and inmates in the state prison system trying to acquire skills to get a job when they are released.

It adds up to grossly misplaced priorities in a budget year where there is no room for error or for protection of the well-connected.
It’s up to the House to do the right thing and save our students.

Chris Fitzsimon is the executive director of NC Policy Watch.

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