There appears to be some confusion and displeasure about a provision that changes the way that budget writers construct the education budget.

The issue boils down to when and where to include additional state funding for projected growth in student enrollment. There are two options.

1)    Include funding for enrollment growth at the beginning of the budget process in the Base (aka Continuation) Budget, or

2)    Include funding for enrollment growth during the budget process in the so-called Expansion Budget.

In the past, budget writers would automatically include projected student enrollment growth in the Base Budget. The Base Budget, as the name suggests, is the starting point for budgets later proposed by the governor and each legislative chamber.

This year’s budget bill includes a provision that excludes projected student enrollment growth from the Base Budget. In the future, budget writers will have to include enrollment growth in the list of increased spending measures referred to as the Expansion Budget.

Enrollment increases are technically an expansion of funding, so it makes sense to include them in the Expansion Budget. In addition, the change will make funding increases for enrollment growth easier to identify.

On the other hand, it may create uncertainty for growing school districts. By including enrollment increases in the Base Budget, districts were assured that, at minimum, the state would accommodate projected growth in their student population. Now, only after passage of the state budget, which may not occur until late summer, would districts know if the legislature funded their projected enrollment increases.

Furthermore, critics fear that legislators will choose to fund only a portion of the projected student enrollment growth. Philip Price, CFO for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, recently commented, “It opens the possibility they won’t fund total enrollment growth. They’re going to have limited funding and you’re going to be competing with every other priority.” I would argue that there is nothing in the budget that is immune to the competition for limited resources.

Unless the legislature reverses this policy, perhaps in a technical corrections bill, we’ll see it in action next year. Only then will we be able to determine the practical effect of the change.