News

In Wake County, tension over public school funding grows

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises this budget season came with increasing tension in Democrat-dominated Wake County over public school funding.

As Policy Watch reported last month, Wake County commissioners approved a $21 million funding increase for the fast-growing school system, which is the largest in the state. However, that amount was only about half of the increase requested by members of the local school board.

An interesting report Wednesday from The News & Observer gives some perspective on the new dynamic for both Democrat-controlled boards:

In just two years, Wake County school board members have gone from talking about a new era of cooperation with commissioners to saying that there’s a lack of trust between both boards.

The difference in the two feelings comes from how the Wake County Board of Commissioners provided a record $44.6 million school funding increase in 2015 compared to $21 million boost this year. While the 2015 increase provided nearly all the school board had requested, this year’s amount is less than half the requested school budget increase.

The non-partisan school board, which has a Democratic majority, had welcomed the election of a Democratic majority to the commissioners after the 2014 election. Commissioners have raised the annual amount provided to the school system by $90 million since 2015. But the 30-percent budget increase hasn’t been enough for the school board.

Compare the comments made by school board members who were also in office in 2015. In both cases, the school board was reacting to the adoption of the county budget the day before.

“We appreciate the work and the collaboration with the county commissioners,” school board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said in June 2015. “And how they really showed up in support, for me both not just their words but their actions last night, by passing the school budget.”

But on June 20, Johnson-Hostler, who is now the board chairwoman, was talking about how the school district is now facing a $24 million budget shortfall.

“When curve balls come because they come regularly – several yesterday – we roll with the punches,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Apparently we roll with the punches so well that it appears that we actually don’t need a lot of help.

“But I would dare say we need a lot of help and we need the entire community to be a part of reminding us how much help we need.”

School board member Bill Fletcher had worn what he called his “cooperation tie” to the June 21, 2015 board meeting.

“I’ve worn this before in hopes that we would have cooperation with our county commission,” Fletcher said two years ago. “I’m wearing it today by the demonstrated cooperation and collaboration that we have with our other elected body in the county as well as our staffs.

“I want to give a shout-out to both our superintendent and to county manager for their working together. In our meetings with commissioners and staff, I believe there’s a greater understanding of what both of us bring to the table, of our responsibilities and how they are not necessarily the same but how they complement each other.

“I see that as a very positive foundation for how we move forward as a community to provide the services that we need.”

Two years later, Fletcher was faulting county staff and commissioners for how they were saying that the school system didn’t need as large an increase because it didn’t spend all the local money it was receiving.

“There were some things said during this budget cycle that at least bordered on the edge of calling our staff incompetent or untruthful and I reject that categorically,” Fletcher said at the June 20 work session. “I have extreme confidence in the people who’ve been serving us for more than 20 years each in budget and finance, and I have no reason to believe there’s anything in our financial reporting and our budgeting and our budget request that is anything other than above board, on the table with all the numbers adding up the what they’re supposed to.

“So I want to express a note of confidence in our staff for what they have presented and the challenge of maintaining a positive attitude with some of the comments coming from other folks who’ve been elected to serve our community so thank you very much.”

During board member comments at the regular meeting later that day, Fletcher held his tongue.

“I won’t say anything derogatory about our friends downtown,” Fletcher said. “I’ll end, otherwise I’ll get in trouble.”

 

News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

N&O editorial: GOP should stop “meddling” with N.C. public education

A Sunday editorial from The News & Observer offers up some advice for Republican leaders in the N.C. General Assembly: Stop meddling with public schools.

The editorial follows a report from Policy Watch last week on a budget directive from GOP lawmakers that eliminates top positions at the State Board of Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, specifically targeting several with ties to former Democratic state Superintendent June Atkinson.

The cuts also single out the top staffer for the state board, which is at odds with the legislature over the powers held by Superintendent Mark Johnson’s office. 

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the $23 billion Republican budget plan last week, but the GOP-controlled legislature overrode Cooper’s veto hours later.

From The N&O editorial:

When Republican Mark Johnson, a 33-year-old former Forsyth County school board member, upset incumbent state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, a Democrat, in the 2016 election, Republicans in the General Assembly were rubbing their hands together so hard they could have started a forest fire.

In Johnson, who advocates for charter schools and expansion of a wrong-headed voucher program that takes money from public schools and gives it to parents to enable them to send their kids to private school, legislative leaders like Senate President pro-tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore had an inexperienced superintendent to whom they could give marching orders.

In the latest example of legislative meddling, a budget mandate reported by N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the N.C. Justice Center, would fire several education officials from the administration of Atkinson, and would eliminate a top staff member’s position with the State Board of Education, which by statute has charge of policy. Martez Hill is the board’s executive director. Johnson and the board, led by former U.S. Rep. Bill Cobey, a Republican and experienced public education advocate, have repeatedly clashed as Johnson, with the support of right-wing lawmakers, has tried to consolidate power. He’s doing so, of course, with direct input from Jones Street.

This is outrageous. Said Cobey: “I’ve been told offline that they eliminated Martez’s position not because of him, but because he was executive director of the state board, which I think is a sad state of affairs.”

No kidding. Johnson ought to be seeking and taking as much advice as he can from experienced hands like Cobey. The superintendent has a lot to learn. In fact, he has everything to learn, and he seems a lukewarm supporter of conventional or mainstream public schools, which isn’t good. And a weak superintendent gives full control of public education to the people who want it, the GOP leaders of the General Assembly.

This kind of action also erodes confidence in the Department of Public Instruction, internally and externally.

Republicans seem determined to dismantle the public education system that has served North Carolina well for over 100 years. In fact, it may be said that the state’s strong public schools transformed it, giving hope to millions of young people and opening their lives to the endless possibilities that education should inspire. Why GOP leaders want to meddle in and damage public schools remains a mystery, given that the majority of North Carolina families have their children in public schools.

The State Board is hardly a liberal outpost, far from it. But it has provided needed supervision of Johnson, who has kept a low profile since taking office, perhaps on the orders of Berger and Moore. Who knows?

What we do know is that these latest maneuvers are transparent, intended by lawmakers to weaken the state board and empower politicians with guidance of the schools. That’s not good.

In addition to the position cuts, state lawmakers also ordered DPI to slash its operating budget by 6 percent, about $3.2 million, in the first year, followed by a 13.9 percent cut, or about $7.29 million, in the second year. It’s another round of cuts for a department that has seen its funding dramatically reduced under Republican leadership.

News

State lawmakers approve campus protest bill, rapid charter expansions

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

A  pair of GOP bills aimed at curtailing UNC campus protests and speeding charter school growth swept through the state House of Representatives Thursday.

With lawmakers hoping to wrap the session quickly, the chamber concurred with Senate versions of both bills, despite resistance from Democrats.

As Policy Watch reported in April, House Bill 527 emerged with the support of top Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who complained of noisy protests of conservative speakers on college campuses.

Officials with the ACLU of N.C. questioned the language of the bill in April, and the version approved Thursday strips at least one provision calling for individuals to bring a suit against universities to claim damages and court costs if they believe free speech rights have been violated.

As it is, the bill orders universities to discipline anyone who “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution or substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others, including protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in and listen to expressive activity.”

It also authorizes the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors to create  a “Committee on Free Expression,” which would prepare annual reports on, among other things, “barriers to or disruptions of free expression within the constituent institutions.”

Meanwhile, House lawmakers also signed off on a significantly altered version of House Bill 800, which would, among other key provisions, clear faster enrollment growth for charter schools not deemed low-performing by the state. Under the bill, such charters this year would be able to boost their enrollment by up to 25 percent without the approval of the State Board of Education. Next year, that threshold would leap to 30 percent.

Yet, as Policy Watch reported in May, the nonpartisan National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which outlines best practices for charters, cautioned state leaders against such rapid growth without a thorough probe of a school’s finances and leadership.

Clearing a pathway for charters has been a clear priority this session for Republican lawmakers, who point to lengthy charter wait lists as reason for action. However, critics say the publicly-funded schools should require extensive vetting before they take on substantially more students.

A House bill this session sought to approve up to 40 percent enrollment growth for charters, even those that would be classified as low-performing, although that bill foundered after its passage in the House in April. The legislature’s moves earned rebukes from Bill Cobey, the Republican chair of the State Board of Education, and public school advocacy groups such as the N.C. Association of Educators.

House Bill 800 sponsor, Charlotte Republican John Bradford, argued Thursday that the bill’s most controversial component, allowing for corporate charter partners to claim up to half of a school’s enrollment, had been removed.

The legislation would also allow charters to apply for participation in the state’s pre-K program. And, notably, it would leave quality assessments of private companies seeking to offer online coursework to local school districts, rather than the state’s N.C. Virtual Public School program.

Both bills will now be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper. Even if Cooper vetoes the legislation, lawmakers are likely to override his actions.

News

In dwindling days of session, Senate looks to privatize teacher prep

As it often the case in the final days of session, North Carolina lawmakers are expected to hold marathon voting sessions on a spate of last-minute bills. Among those proposals scheduled for a key vote Wednesday is a Senate concurrence vote on Senate Bill 599, a teacher prep reform bill that, among other changes, opens teacher preparation, now a bastion of universities, to private companies.

The measure, authored by influential Wake County Republican Chad Barefoot, would create a professional standards and preparation commission for teachers that would recommend rules for the prep programs to the State Board of Education, although the board would have final say on regulating the programs.

Despite stiff opposition from Democrats, the Senate proposal cleared the state House Monday, as reported by Ed NC. Senate lawmakers have placed the bill on their calendar for this afternoon.

More from Ed NC on the legislation:

“I just feel like this bill isn’t ready for prime time,” said Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, after asking a series of questions to Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, about the purpose of the bill. Elmore presented the bill to the House.

Elmore explained that the bill was intended to increase the number of teachers coming into North Carolina schools. Schools of education in the state experienced a 30 percent drop in enrollment between 2010 and 2015.

“The overall premise of this bill is to ensure that we have a proper teacher pipeline going into the schools,” Elmore said.

But even after questioning Elmore, Meyer said he did not understand how the bill was going to accomplish that goal.

Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, also spoke against the bill, saying it needed more committee work before it should move forward.

“I’m not sure why we have the bill given we made some major changes last year in our licensure requirements,” she said.

She said the changes in licensure requirements should have time to take effect before more changes are made in state law.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said the House K-12 committee gave the bill the proper attention before bringing it to the House floor. Horn is a co-chair of that committee.

“We did hear this bill in committee. It did get committee work. It was voted out,” he said. “We amended it in committee to improve the bill vastly and respond to a need we currently have here in North Carolina.”

A few amendments were added to the bill, including one that would increase the number of members of the commission from 18 to 19. The additional member would come from the State Advisory Council on Indian Education.

The bill originated in the Senate. Its only sponsor, Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, received $5,000 from Texas Teachers of Tomorrow in the month prior to the start of the 2017 long session of the General Assembly.

Barefoot said he did not solicit the donation and has never heard of the person who gave him the donation on behalf of the Texas Teachers of Tomorrow.

Teachers of Tomorrow is an alternative, online teacher preparation organization. It started in Texas and has branched out to four other states: Indiana, Florida, Nevada, and South Carolina. It targets “career changers,” people from other professions who want to become teachers, according to Dave Saba, chief development officer of Teachers of Tomorrow. He said the average age of a student in the program is 32.

In e-mails, a representative for Teachers of Tomorrow tried to get Barefoot to change his legislation in a way that would allow them to enter the state sooner than the bill allowed. He did not make the changes.

However, in the House K-12 Education Committee last week, lawmakers added a pilot program to the bill that could create an opening for organizations like Teachers of Tomorrow to begin in North Carolina sooner than in the original legislation — a timeline the organization wanted.

During that committee meeting, Barefoot voiced his opposition to that part of the bill.

“I do not support that section of the bill,” he said. “I think that we should treat all education preparation programs, no matter what they come to us looking like, evenly and equally.”

 

News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

Despite increases, N.C. public education funding still lags, advocates say

Protesters blasted the N.C. General Assembly’s K-12 budget Monday.

Despite modest increases in teacher pay and classroom funding bundled in the General Assembly’s now-approved budget, North Carolina public education spending still lags far behind pre-recession levels, advocates at the state’s legislative building argued Monday.

“Even though our economy continues to recover, our public schools are facing a permanent recession caused by Republican lawmakers who would rather give tax cuts to millionaires and big corporations instead of investing in public education,” Logan Smith, communications director for liberal-leaning Progress NC Action, said.

The advocacy organization touted new teacher pay numbers that show, when adjusted for inflation, pay at nearly every experience level lags pay in 2008, before a Wall Street collapse brought on a massive economic slowdown.

Additionally, the group says, North Carolina spending, when adjusted for inflation, is $500 less per student today than it was in 2008. And state spending on textbooks, which received a non-recurring, $11.2 million bump in the final legislative budget, remains 40% less per student than 2008.

Protesters said they planned to seek a meeting with N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore after their press conference to discuss the budget Monday. Later, Smith said Moore was not available when protesters visited, although they spoke briefly with some of the House speaker’s aides.

“Clearly, he did not talk to any actual educators before writing this budget,” added Smith.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper announced that he would veto the state legislature’s $23 billion spending package Monday, although the Republican-dominated legislature likely has enough votes to override Cooper’s veto.

Meanwhile, veteran teachers blasted lawmakers’ approved pay raises in recent years, which as of the most recent national rankings, lifted the state’s average educator pay ranking from 41st nationally to 35th.

Those numbers, however, did not include the pay raises approved by lawmakers this month, although teachers and other K-12 advocates say the legislature’s pay hikes won’t go far enough.

They say experienced educators were left behind when lawmakers developed their salary scale. Amy Daaleman, a 25-year music teacher in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said this year’s average 3.3% raise for teachers comes out to about another $30 per month for her.

That’s not nearly enough to cover expected increases in health care premiums for teachers like Daaleman.

“I feel disrespected that my value to the state to stay and teach another year as an educator is only worth $30 a month,” said Daaleman. “What is the logic in staying in a profession that has more and more work only to lose money?”

Becky Campbell, a 22-year language arts teacher in Chapel Hill, agreed, pointing out last year’s much-touted GOP raises amounted to a $11.70 monthly increase in take-home pay for her.

“I want the public to understand what a sham this support for public education is,” said Campbell.

Teacher pay and textbook funding wasn’t the only gripe leveled at GOP state lawmakers Monday. Teachers and advocates also shredded lawmakers over the state’s looming class-size funding issue, teacher assistant funding and a state budget provision that eliminates retirement health benefits for new teachers beginning in 2021.

“Taking away retirement benefits would be horrible for teacher recruitment,” said Smith. “And it makes it even harder than it already is to retain the educators your children deserve.”