Commentary

Do General Assembly policymakers know everything they need to know about education policy?

If meeting agendas are any indication, General Assembly leaders apparently think they know everything they need to know about education policy.  The General Assembly has effectively dismantled the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee (Ed Oversight) in recent years, and this year they’ve made unprecedented changes to the joint meetings of the House and Senate Education Appropriation subcommittees (Ed Appropriations).

Ed Oversight was originally established in the 1990 budget.  It’s a bicameral committee responsible for examining “on a continuing basis, the several educational institutions in North Carolina, in order to make ongoing recommendations to the General Assembly on ways to improve public education from kindergarten through higher education.”  Ed Oversight has historically met during each legislative interim…until now.

From at least 2003 through 2015, Ed Oversight has conducted meetings of topical importance, reviewed reports submitted by agencies, and issued annual reports to the General Assembly.  For example, during the 2014-15 interim, Ed Oversight held meetings on UNC tuition, the federal Race to the Top grant, virtual charter schools, and the Read to Achieve program.  That same year, the committee received 69 reports from agencies and other educational organizations.  Finally, as in past years, the committee issued an annual report summarizing each meeting and recommending certain policies and legislation.

Ed Oversight met just once during the 2015-16 interim, and neglected to issue an annual report or any policy recommendations.  The General Assembly expended even less energy on examining and improving North Carolina’s education policy during the 2016-17 interim, holding zero Ed Oversight meetings.

The lack of effort displayed by Ed Oversight has carried over into Ed Appropriations subcommittee.  Ed Appropriations is responsible for putting together budgets for North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges, and universities.  These budgets are clearly important, comprising about 57% of the total state budget.

During the first year of each biennium, each appropriations subcommittee – not just Education – meets jointly to learn how their budgets work, review past budget activity, and identify issues for the upcoming session.  The presentations, led by members of the nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division, have historically offered members an incredibly detailed and thorough look at agency budgets.  However, Ed Appropriations is meeting with declining frequency, and declining to take in-depth looks at agency budgets.

Strangely, for 2017, Ed Appropriations only sought the detailed, nonpartisan presentations on the $1.1 billion North Carolina Community College System, and the $21 million North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.  They apparently did not need any information on the $8.7 billion public school system or the remaining $2.8 billion spent on the other 15 constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina System.

Ed Appropriations is alone in its lack of intellectual curiosity.  Every other budget subcommittee received detailed presentations covering all, or nearly all, agency budgets.

This lack of focus has real, negative impacts on our education system.  For example, if North Carolina Senate members understood how the public schools budget works, they wouldn’t be confused that early-grade class sizes haven’t decreased as much as they wished they would.  A General Assembly that understood its own budget also wouldn’t be considering scrapping the entire public school funding system on the basis of a report that failed to assess whether North Carolina’s public school funding system worked well or not.  Nor would they be duped by misleading claims about charter school funding.

In the meantime, legislators interested in learning how public school funding works in North Carolina would be well-served by reading Financing Education in North Carolina: A Budget and Tax Guide.  This education funding primer will provide General Assembly members a base level of knowledge as they embark on crafting this year’s budget.

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