The General Assembly’s Conference Committee budget proposal (special provisions can be found here; changes to funding can be found here) contains a number of education proposals that are worth highlighting:
- Opportunity Scholarship voucher program: The conference proposal combines the changes that were included in both the House and Senate versions of the budget. That is, the proposal includes the House policy of expanding the number of new scholarships that can be awarded to students in grades K-1, thereby increasing the number of scholarships that will be awarded to students who would have gone to a private school even if they had not received a voucher. The conference proposal also incorporates the Senate plan to increase voucher funding to $145 million per year, parking unused funds in a reserve fund. Combined, these proposals are likely to cost the State approximately $175 million over the next five years.
- Sets up crippling class size restrictions for the FY 17-18: The General Assembly provides school districts with teachers in grades K-3 according to set student-to-teacher allotment ratios. For example, school districts receive one teacher for every 18 students in kindergarten. Historically, a school district’s average class sizes across the district have been allowed to exceed the allotted ratio by 3 students. This allows LEAs to use State funding for supplemental teachers such as art, music, and gym teachers. Under the 2016 budget, LEAs would lose this flexibility beginning in FY 17-18. The move will have a devastating effect on districts across the state, particularly low-wealth districts with limited capacity to hire additional teachers from local revenues.
- Fails to restore funding to prior levels: The 2016 budget fails to restore several items to pre-recession levels. Compared to FY 08-09, North Carolina’s schools will have approximately 3,700 fewer State-funded teachers (4,800, if you account for student growth), $143 million less in teacher assistant funding, $41 million less in instructional supplies, $29 million less for textbooks, $39 million less for noninstructional support (janitors, clerical, substitutes, etc.), and $12 million less for professional development.
- School performance grades: The General Assembly has decided to stick with the achievement-based formula for school performance grades that largely serves to stigmatize schools with high concentrations of economically-disadvantaged students. The only silver lining is that the General Assembly has decided to keep using a 15-point scale for each letter grade for the next three years, rather than moving to a 10-point scale that would arbitrarily put a failing label on even more schools.
- Fails to fund early college high schools that have proven to be successful: Cooperative Innovative High Schools (also known as “early college high schools”) are one of the great, proven success stories of North Carolina’s education system. Ignoring the evidence of success, the 2016 budget proposes to instead fund a number of small, disparate, and unproven performance pay plans. The budget includes performance bonuses for third grade reading teachers, Advanced Placement teachers, career and technical education teachers, and teachers performing “advanced roles” (this last proposal is modeled off of Charlotte’s Project LIFT, the results of which were labeled “grim” by the Charlotte Observer).
- Provides funding reserve for Achievement School Districts: Hidden in the Reserves section of the budget, the budget provides funding for HB 1080, the controversial Achievement School District bill. Based off a Tennessee model that failed to improve student performance, the program would hand responsibility for low-performing schools to charter operators, many of which are for-profit companies. A number of technical issues continue to plague the bill, making success unlikely in North Carolina as well.
- Parks $5 million in the Educational Endowment Fund: Created in the 2014 budget at the urging of Lt. Governor Dan Forest, the Educational Endowment Fund was designed to collect proceeds from the sale of special license plates in order to fund teacher pay raises. As a result of insufficient demand, the license plates have never been offered. Still, the General Assembly has decided to appropriate $5 million to this lost cause. The money will sit in the fund unused until the General Assembly decides to appropriate it in some future budget session.
- Central office allotment cut: The budget continues the trend of reducing funds for central office operations in school districts. While it is easy for politicians to rail about bloated administration, school districts can’t operate without superintendents, finance officers, human resource directors, curriculum experts, and office assistants. The 2016 budget cut of $2.5 million brings central office funding down to levels last seen in the mid-90s. If inflation were taken into account, I don’t know if central office appropriations have ever been this low. It is important to keep in mind, these cuts fall hardest on small, low-wealth counties that have limited ability to generate local revenues.