With legislative fix to class size crisis stalling, teacher advocates say thousands of jobs at stake

Orange County parent Michelle Anderson calls on members of the legislature to approve House Bill 13.

An estimated 4,500 teachers across the state may lose their jobs next school year if members of the N.C. General Assembly don’t act on a legislative fix to the state’s looming class size, N.C. Association of Educators President Mark Jewell said Thursday.

“Many of our state public school teachers are on edge about whether or not they will have a job at the end of the school year,” said Jewell. “Living with this kind of fear and uncertainty is not productive for our educators, and it’s not productive for our students and our public schools and our public school administrators.”

Jewell’s comments, along with those of several other teaching advocates who gathered for Thursday’s press conference in Raleigh, come as the momentum for a temporary salve to next year’s funding crunch appears to be dwindling in the GOP-controlled state Senate.

The trouble began after members of the legislature passed a budget directive to K-12 schools last year that they begin cutting class sizes in the lower grades by the 2017-2018 academic year. But without additional state funding or flexibility over how to administer their state allocations, school district leaders warned of major consequences across North Carolina.

Policy Watch reported in November on the drastic cuts school districts across North Carolina would be forced to make should state lawmakers punt on the issue this session.

Without state intervention or serious spending increases from many local governments, such districts could be forced to slash teaching positions in specialty subjects such as physical education, arts, music and world languages, or dip into other funding pools such as teaching assistant funds to cover the shortfall.

With House Bill 13, state House legislators from both parties acted quickly this session to resolve the issue, returning flexibility to local districts that had been used to protect teaching positions.

Yet the momentum for the class size fix has slowed greatly since it was received by the state Senate, a chamber that has oft-times been more critical of the state’s public schools.

Today, it lingers in a Senate rules committee with little indication that it will be taken up soon. Meanwhile, Senate President Phil Berger‘s office has not responded to multiple Policy Watch requests for comment on the legislation this session.

Jewell said Thursday that his organization supports smaller class sizes.

“But you can’t do it haphazardly and in a way that jeopardizes the kinds of education and the kind of schools that our students deserve,” said Jewell.

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N&O slams GOP teacher pay claims as “mostly false”

N.C. Senate President Phil Berger

A “PolitiFact NC” report late Monday from The News & Observer is finding some dubious assertions about teacher pay by influential N.C. Senate Republican Phil Berger.

Berger, who serves as Senate president, recently claimed his party raised average teacher pay in the state by more than 15 percent over the last three years.

According to the paper, that’s not exactly true.

From The N&O:

PolitiFact NC looked into that claim and ruled it Mostly False.

In reality, the average teacher has seen a raise of about 10.8 percent in the last three years. So Berger’s claim missed the mark – and he also failed to mention that the GOP has been in charge of the state budget for the last six years, not just the last three years.

In the first three years of budgets written and passed by Republican lawmakers, average teacher pay declined every year. So in the total span of GOP control, average teacher pay has risen about half as much as Berger’s claim.

Berger did point to a state document that initially seemed to back up his 15 percent claim, but it applied only to the state’s portion of teacher pay and also relied on accounting tricks to reach that number.

The debate comes with both the GOP-controlled N.C. General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper expected to back sweeping raises for teachers in this year’s budget.

This month, Cooper proposed a 10 percent raise for all teachers over two years, a rate the governor’s office claims would bring the state to tops in teacher pay in the southeast in three years. GOP lawmakers have also expressed a goal of raising average teacher pay, which falls just shy of $50,000 today, to about $55,000 in their spending plan.

Courts & the Law, Legislature, News

Wake County leaders push “Raise the Age” legislation

As Policy Watch has noted in recent weeks, support for “raise the age” legislation seems to be growing in North Carolina among both political parties and law enforcement. This week, it’s getting another thumbs up from leaders in Wake County, which operates the state’s largest public school system.

The News & Observer reports today that county officials scheduled a Monday press conference to tout the bipartisan bill, which, in most cases, would require that the state no longer prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

North Carolina is one of just two states nationwide maintaining such a practice, which critics blame for youth leaving school with criminal records.

From The N&O:

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, earlier this month filed a bill known as the “Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act,” which would move most crimes committed by 16- or 17-year-olds to juvenile court. Violent felonies and some drug offenses would still be considered in adult court.

Commissioner Jessica Holmes said she supports reform efforts because the current laws are “archaic” and create a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

“Evidence shows that adolescents who go through the juvenile justice system are less likely to keep committing crimes than their peers who are treated like adults in the system,” Holmes said.

“The juvenile justice system is best equipped to rehabilitate young people in a crucial stage of development,” she said. “Raising the Age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 will lead to safer communities, long-term financial savings and better outcomes for young people and their families.”

The effort, known as “raise the age,” has faltered in the past in part because sheriffs and prosecutors said the juvenile-justice system is inadequately funded to take on more teenagers. The group pushing for change this year claims support from the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.

Advocates say teen offenses can have impacts stretching far beyond schooling years. They add that relatively minor school-age infractions could seriously blunt a person’s ability to succeed later in life.

The legislature’s draft bill is currently assigned to a House judiciary committee. Policy Watch will track this bill as it progresses.


Amid push for school calendar flexibility, N.C. lawmakers look to study effects on student achievement

A pair of bills filed in the state House of Representatives this week would grant local school districts more flexibility in developing their own calendar and launch a pilot project aimed at studying the effects of an amended school calendar on student achievement.

A bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers filed House bills 389 and 375 amid a bevy of drafts already offered this session that would allow local school boards greater power over their calendar.

State law provides that public schools, with the exception of year-round schools, should return from their summer break no earlier than the Friday closest to Aug. 26 and complete school no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

But, given education research suggests shorter summer breaks may speed positive impacts on student achievement, some have long argued North Carolina officials should revise their statutes.

One proposal filed this week would give school boards the ability to reschedule their opening date to coincide with their local community colleges, providing they do not resume operations any earlier than Aug. 15.

Another bill gives 20 counties from across the state—many of them low-income, rural counties with struggling school systems—the option to participate in a three-year pilot program in which they would have the power to reconvene school around Aug. 10.

“These are counties that we’ve got to try something different,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-sponsored both bills. “Because what we’ve been doing is not working.”

Horn said House lawmakers have long sought to tinker with the school calendar, but failed to gain much traction in the state Senate.

This year, Horn said he believes there may be a greater willingness to take up the issue, pointing to the dozens of local calendar bills already in the works in both chambers and students’ greater access to digital education content.

“I’m not going to waste everybody’s time running bills that I know aren’t going to pass,” added Horn. “If I know I’m going to get whipped, I’m not going to get into the fight.”

Districts could begin the program as soon as the 2018-2019 school year, and officials with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction would provide annual reports that would detail the impact on student performance and summer internships.

Additionally, the State Board of Education and the Department of Commerce would separately report to UNC’s School of Government on the program’s effects.

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DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson taps another former McCrory staffer

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

North Carolina’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction is again turning to some old faces to implement his vision for school administration.

Johnson’s office announced Wednesday that the new Republican superintendent hired Chloe Gossage, a former policy director for ex-Gov. Pat McCrory, to act as his top legislative liaison and chief budget advisor.

Before working in McCrory’s office, Gossage worked for six years in the legislature’s fiscal research division and for two years at the Administrative Office of the Courts. She was also a former staffer at the conservative Civitas Institute. Here’s a somewhat dated opinion piece from Gossage on her vision for education reform back in 2008.

“I am excited that Chloe is bringing such tremendous legislative, budget and policy experience to our team, and she will be instrumental in furthering my goal of transparency in school finance,” Johnson said in a statement.

As Policy Watch noted in January, Johnson has already added a pair of former McCrory staffers to his office.

As is often the case during a political transition, the DPI superintendent’s office has been in a state of flux since Johnson took over for longtime Democratic superintendent June Atkinson in January. Meanwhile, Johnson is entangled in a pending lawsuit with the State Board of Education over expanded DPI hiring and firing powers given to him by the Republican-controlled legislature in December.

State board members, who are also Republican, have blasted that law as “unconstitutional.”