Courts & the Law, Education, News

Class size fix rolls through Senate, but Democrats denounce “Frankenstein’s monster” bill

North Carolina senators took a key step in delivering long-sought relief on a class size mandate to the state’s public school districts Friday, but Democrats denounced the “Frankenstein’s monster” bill for its inclusion of multiple partisan jabs at Gov. Roy Cooper.

The amended version of House Bill 90—which was rolled out Thursday and passed in the Senate Friday by a 37-5 margin—retains the “status quo” on K-3 class size caps in the coming year, and phases in reduced class sizes in the following three years.

Members of the state House of Representatives aren’t expected to consider the conference report until Monday or Tuesday.

The deal, which was negotiated behind closed doors in recent weeks, also budgets about $61 million in recurring spending on so-called “enhancement” teachers, the arts, music, language and P.E. teachers whose jobs were so imperiled by lawmakers’ 2016 mandate to slash K-3 class sizes.

“This bill gives us a reasonable pathway to smaller class sizes,” said Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Wake County Republican who says she was involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiating that yielded this week’s pact.

But Democrats admonished Republicans, arguing that without controversial provisions aimed at merging state elections and ethics boards and controlling how $58 million in Atlantic Coast Pipeline mitigation funds are spent, the legislation would have passed unanimously.

“What’s sad to me is somehow that’s not good enough for you,” said Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat. “There has to be a divisive poison pill in everything that we do.”

Republicans are already mired in an ongoing court battle with Cooper over their effort to curtail his party’s majority on the Board of Elections, although the state Supreme Court ruled in Cooper’s favor last month.

The bill would add a ninth member to the panel unaffiliated with any party, but continues to seek an even party split on the remaining eight seats. Previously, the governor’s party was guaranteed a majority on the board.

The legislation’s other sticking point centered on GOP legislators’ effort to control how pipeline mitigation funds are spent. Cooper announced the creation of the fund, donated by energy companies that benefit from the pipeline, around the same time as the controversial pipeline got the green-light from his administration. The governor’s office says he will control the fund, although legislators say he has overstepped his authority.

Republicans have also accused Cooper of striking a “quid pro quo” deal with energy companies, providing pipeline permitting in exchange for the environmental mitigation cash, a charge Cooper denies.

Despite their criticism, most Senate Democrats voted for the proposal Friday. Yet those who did expressed heartburn about its hybrid approach to packaging multiple hot-button issues in one conference report.

“When you put these provisions in this bill in this manner in which it is, you make it unfair. You make it political,” said Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing multiple counties in eastern North Carolina.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, an Asheville Democrat, called the chamber’s overhaul of  the elections board “highly partisan and frankly insulting.”

Republicans countered that the legislation simply bundles together multiple pressing issues that needed to be addressed in a timely fashion by the legislature.

“I cannot see the reason why it has been demonized,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican representing several western North Carolina counties.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Republican who led class size negotiations for the GOP-dominated chamber, said dissenting Democrats were indicating greater loyalty to Cooper than the public schools.

“You can work yourself up, you can do the hyperbole,” said Barefoot. “This bill produces solutions for our students.”

Despite the back and forth, Democrats said Republicans were to blame for the long-running, class size consternation, claiming that GOP lawmakers ordered smaller K-3 classrooms without providing sufficient funding.

“This body set fire to our public schools and now we are the firefighters,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat. “You can’t be the arsonist and the firefighter at the same time.”

Education, News

House, Senate leadership push plan to ease North Carolina class size crisis

State House and Senate leaders in the N.C. General Assembly say they have a plan for easing North Carolina’s class-size tumult.

Senate and House K-12 leaders announced details at a press conference Thursday afternoon, rolling out a four-year, phase-in plan for the deal and $61 million in recurring funding for “enhancement” teachers—arts, music, world language and physical education teachers.

[Update] The changes were bundled into revisions of House Bill 90. The bill also seeks to seize control of an environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that is slated to be controlled by Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. Furthermore, it delves into Cooper and the legislature’s ongoing battle over the State Board of Elections—both provisions that are likely to spur the ire of Cooper’s office.

The deal is said to retain the “status quo” for class sizes in the upcoming 2018-2019 school year. Advocates hope it will offer long-term assurances to head off the partisan clashes on K-3 classrooms that have dominated the last two years at the legislature.

“This has been one of the General Assembly’s top priorities for years,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican who co-chairs the Senate education budget committee. “From parents to legislators and even Gov. Cooper, I think it’s a goal that we all support.”

Lawmakers say they arrived at the deal after weeks of closed-door negotiations over the fate of North Carolina’s K-3 mandate, which began in 2016 when GOP legislators ordered local school districts to slash class sizes in the early grades.

Some Republican budget writers said they sought smaller classrooms, but a wave of criticism from Democrats, local districts and public school advocates urged action before school systems were forced to cough up millions or lay off potentially thousands of arts, music and P.E. teachers.

Such “specialty” or “enhancement” teachers were at risk because the state mandate, without additional state funding, would have left local leaders scrambling to find budget space to hire classroom teachers in the core subjects in order to reduce class sizes.

Advocates also warned that the directive would imperil Pre-K programs, pack classes in grades 4-12 and cost districts millions to find new classroom space. Legislators said the plan would end the state’s waiting list for its Pre-K program.

On Thursday, Barefoot called the class size crisis “one of the most difficult issues I’ve had to resolve as a legislator.”

The bill includes a dedicated funding stream for enhancement teachers, Republicans said. And while the “core” classroom teacher allotment will be restricted to that use, the enhancement teacher allotment can also be spent on classroom teachers, Barefoot said.

“Make no mistake, we are determined to lower average class sizes,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House K-12 budget committee. “That is a high priority for us, we’re pursuing that. We’re just going to stage it out, rather than doing it in one fell swoop.”

[Update] Members of a joint legislative budget committee approved the GOP-authored legislation—which includes a plan to relax some eligibility restrictions for Personal Education Savings Accounts—Thursday afternoon. Of particular import: The bill strips the requirement that an eligible recipient must have been a full-time student in a public school.

The controversial program provides a debit card for families of children with special needs to spend on private school enrollment.

Horn said the new guidelines were intended to address children with special needs who may not be full-time students, pointing out some children may only attend a traditional school setting half a day before departing for another facility.

“They fell through the cracks on that,” said Horn. “This solves that problem.”

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, helped to negotiate the fix, legislators said. On Thursday, Joyce called the bill a “viable solution.”

“We believe this phase-in period will provide the time needed for those important next steps,” said Joyce.

A Democratic-proposed resolution that would stave off class size cuts this year has yet to move in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, although Democrats who spoke to Policy Watch Thursday said it seemed likely that party members would vote for today’s GOP-written measure, despite its jabs at Cooper.

Meanwhile, legislative leadership, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, expressed support for the pact.

Moore called the deal a “great collaboration” between both chambers. “Schools are going to be even better off next year than they are this year,” he said.

Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan policy group from Raleigh, said the legislation provides “badly-needed certainty” for districts. Poston also complimented lawmakers for their Pre-K provision.

“We applaud members of the General Assembly for putting forth legislation that invests more in early education learning and provides a reasonable pathway to realize lower class sizes in our public schools,” Poston said in a statement.

Updates as they become available.

Education, News

Superintendent Mark Johnson on controversial teacher pay comment: Phrasing was “less than stellar”

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson says his “less-than-stellar phrasing” when addressing teacher pay at a Raleigh conference last month spurred a “fierce partisan backlash focused only on teacher pay.”

Johnson addressed the controversy—in which he reportedly referred to $35,000 in teacher pay as “good money” for some educators—in an op-ed for The News & Observer Wednesday.

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, has since re-emphasized calls for further teacher raises from the N.C. General Assembly.

Meanwhile, Johnson argues that context matters in his quote, which touched off a firestorm and prompted leaders in the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) to shatter tradition by announcing that the superintendent would not be invited to their annual conference this March.

From his commentary:

A key challenge facing North Carolina today is the urban-rural divide. This probably isn’t news to you. Gov. Roy Cooper started the Hometown Strong project to focus on this issue. What is surprising is how I recently triggered a statewide partisan flare-up after my admittedly inelegant attempt to highlight how this urban-rural split causes us to see things differently.

I believe transforming our education system will be a key part of bridging the urban-rural divide. I hoped to illustrate this point recently when discussing starting salaries for teachers with school board members of different political stripes. I said the state’s annual base starting pay (before local supplements) of $35,000 was a good start in some rural communities where families of all shapes, sizes, and age ranges bring home a median household income of just $33,000 a year. While we are on the right track with recent salary increases, I continued, we need to keep working to better compensate our teachers. But my less-than-stellar phrasing activated a fierce partisan backlash focused only on teacher pay.

This recent clamor actually gets to the heart of the matter, though. We are now well into the 21st century but still have students and educators who only have 20th century tools. And some of those tasked with making schools better are more focused on preserving tired partisan wedges rather than looking for innovative ways to provide more and better opportunities in rural communities.

Raising teacher pay is important, and I have consistently pushed for it. But compensation is only a piece of how we strengthen North Carolina’s public school system. Politicos can debate the personal attacks and misdirection, but I want to look for real solutions.

Teachers in rural communities deserve a professional environment that reflects the importance of their role. Last year, my team and I worked with the General Assembly to commit $105 million to replace clearly outdated school buildings in rural communities that cannot afford to build schools on their own.

Meanwhile, NCAE President Mark Jewell has said that he was invited to debate teacher pay with the superintendent on Spectrum News’ “Capital Tonight” program, although Jewell said Johnson declined the offer.

Read more

Education, News

Report: Charters diversify, but still serve a very different population than traditional schools

North Carolina charters are working with a more diverse population today than they were two years ago, a new state report shows. But charter enrollment is still strikingly different from the student population in traditional public schools.

Those are some of the findings of a report delivered by the state’s Office of Charter Schools this week, which oversees 173 publicly-funded charters with more than 100,000 students statewide.

Policy Watch has detailed criticism from some public school advocates who argue charters serve a very different population than their traditional school peers, a point confirmed by past state reports.

But the state charter office indicates that gap, while still substantial, has closed somewhat.

Here’s some analysis from The News & Observer:

The state Office of Charter Schools says it’s “pleased to report” that charter schools are becoming more racially diverse and are enrolling more economically disadvantaged students. The gains, a 0.8 percentage point increase in Hispanic students and a 1 percentage point increase in the number of low-income students, comes after criticism from some groups about how charter schools aren’t as diverse as traditional public schools.

The report also points to improvements in the academic performance of charter schools, adding that the Office of Charter Schools “is confident that the strength of the charter sector will continue to grow.”

“I am pleased with the many great things that our charter schools are doing across the state, the positive trends our schools are making,” David Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools, said in his presentation of the report Thursday to the State Board of Education. “I acknowledge that we still have a lot of work to do and it’s an ongoing process.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some rules that traditional public schools must follow, such as offering transportation and school meals and following the state’s school calendar law.

The number of charter schools has risen to 173 after state lawmakers in 2011 lifted the cap that limited the number to 100. For the first time this school year, charter school enrollment exceeded 100,000 students. Traditional public schools still enroll vastly more students at 1.4 million, but their enrollment has been declining while charter schools have seen a rise.

It’s good news that charter schools are trending in the right direction, said Yevonne Brannon of Public Schools First NC, a group that in the past has been critical about the expansion of charter schools. But Brannon said what the state should do 20 years after the first charter school opened is to give the same flexibility to traditional public schools.

“As long as we’re going to have two different sets of rules, we’re always going to have complaints from one side about funding and the other about governance and flexibility,” Brannon said.

Charters are viewed as an alternative to traditional schooling, one with more flexibility in staffing and curriculum to allow for classroom innovation. But their rise in North Carolina since state legislators lifted a 100-school cap in 2011 has brought along with it many questions about their impacts on diversity and funding for public school systems, which still serve the vast majority of the state’s 1.5 million students.

This week’s report comes days after a new study from researchers at UNC-Charlotte and UCLA points to charters as driving segregation in the Charlotte school system, the second-largest in the state.

According to that study, the 36 charters serving the Charlotte region contributed to “racially isolated” and “hyper segregated” schools.

Responding to claims that charters contribute to segregation, Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement this week that “nothing could be further from the truth.”

“Affluent white parents have always had the freedom to choose the best educational setting for their children,” said Dillingham. “The truth is that public charter schools are empowering to all families. They allow families to break free from the limitations of a school that has been chosen for them. Instead, families are able to choose the educational model they feel is best for their children.”

Education, News

After last week’s controversy, Superintendent Mark Johnson calls teacher pay a top priority in 2018

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

For N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, last week was one to forget.

His comments at a Raleigh conference, in which he reportedly argued that a $35,000 salary is “good money” for some beginning teachers, earned him a sharp rebuke from many of his toughest critics.

And while the superintendent’s office clarified that Johnson meant to refer to teachers living in certain locales with relatively low household incomes, the controversy prompted the leadership of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy organization, to break longstanding tradition by declaring that Johnson would not be invited to their annual conference this March. 

That controversy looms over Johnson’s monthly video message this week, during which the superintendent says raising teacher pay is one of his top legislative priorities in 2018.

“This year, my team and I will be working with the General Assembly to invest even more in K-12,” Johnson said. “Some of our top priorities are continuing to increase educator pay, expanding personalized learning and expanding early childhood education to make sure students are ready when they start school. And yes, we are working with the General Assembly on the current class size legislation.”

Johnson asks for teachers to share their perspectives on General Assembly goals through the state’s Educators Perspectives Survey, which focuses on post-secondary and career options in February.

In recent years, lawmakers approved raises after the state’s teacher pay ranking fell near the bottom of the nation. Today, it sits at a modest 35th, according to one national estimate, although lawmakers are expected to consider raises again during this year’s legislative session.

However, the state’s per-pupil spending remains mired at 43rd in the nation, with K-12 advocates pressing lawmakers to boost spending on a range of classroom needs, including textbooks and materials, support for poor and rural school districts and the state’s top school agency, the Department of Public Instruction.

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, has been criticized for remaining relatively quiet on these issues, although he’s suggested that he prefers to negotiate behind the scenes with the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

Watch Johnson’s full monthly message below: