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

State Board of Education blasts proposal for 25 percent cut to Department of Public Instruction

Members of North Carolina’s top school board on Thursday took aim at a controversial Senate budget proposal to slash funding to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) by 25 percent.

“I can’t imagine this for this department, which feels as if it’s doing so much more with so much less,” said board member Wayne McDevitt. “And now we’re being asked to do even more with even less.”

The Senate budget provision comes after more than $19 million in cuts to the state’s K-12 bureaucracy since 2009, with GOP lawmakers often attacking the public school agency as wasteful.

State officials say DPI performs myriad support tasks for North Carolina’s local school districts, although one of its key functions remains providing training and intervention in poor and low-performing districts.

The Senate spending plan approved last month includes a recurring $13.1 million cut to the agency’s budget, a reduction that the agency’s recently retired budget chief warned would “totally destroy” DPI’s operations capacity. The House budget unveiled last week skips the deep cuts. But it does authorize N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to commission an independent audit of the agency, including anticipated savings in the following year of $1 million.

Also of note: Both the House and Senate include varying cuts to central office administration in local school districts. The House budget report includes a $5 million recurring cut in 2017-2018, expanding the cut to $10 million in the second year of the biennial plan.

The Senate budget report, meanwhile, calls for a $10 million cut in the first year, and a $15 million cut in the second year.

Senate Republican leadership argued last month that their plan focuses on their spending priorities—including about $28 million in spending over two years on an upgrade to the department’s business system—rather than bureaucracy.

Johnson, a newly elected Republican, has not spoken out publicly about the GOP-controlled Senate’s proposals, although state Board Chairman Bill Cobey—also a Republican—has called on the legislature to reduce the funding cut for DPI.

Cobey reaffirmed that criticism Thursday, pointing out that, despite years of cuts, the House budget charges DPI with 21 new reporting requirements to the legislature. The Senate plan, meanwhile, includes 15 new reporting requirements, he said.

“The work keeps coming,” said Cobey. “And I’m all about efficiency, but there are limits to efficiency.”

McDevitt said Thursday that he hopes the department’s staff is expressing its opposition to the legislature.

“They need to hear in real terms the consequences of a 25 percent cut to DPI or a $10 million cut to the central offices, he said. “Eventually the support collapses. I know that sometimes we’re dealing with dollars but are we speaking out?”

Cecilia Holden, the state board’s legislative liaison, said staff has questioned the funding reduction, although she emphasized that her office is focusing on areas of agreement with lawmakers.

Members of the state House are expected to take a final vote on their nearly $23 billion budget plan Friday.

News

With $1.9 billion school bond pending, State Board of Education to talk looming K-12 construction needs

As we reported at Policy Watch two weeks ago, North Carolina lawmakers seem united behind a $1.9 billion school bond referendum bill, although members of the state’s top school board are expected to hammer home North Carolina’s massive school infrastructure demands this week.

Members of the State Board of Education will hold their monthly meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Raleigh. One key topic is school construction. And with this year’s bond referendum expected to cover just a fraction of the state’s estimated $8 billion in capital needs over the next five years, it figures to be a pivotal topic.

As Wednesday’s report to the state board is expected to explain, the vast majority—about 96 percent—of school construction costs are borne by local governments. That’s a key point, because while state and federal resources are typically called upon to help finance classroom needs, state support for school infrastructure is extremely limited.

Indeed, North Carolina hasn’t held a statewide school construction bond referendum in more than two decades.

Some say a cash injection from the state is most needed in North Carolina’s poor and rural districts, which oftentimes rely upon a relatively anemic tax base.

Under this year’s bond bill, which would call for a vote on borrowing $1.9 billion next fall, small and impoverished districts would be favored in the funding divide. They would also be exempted from requirements that they match the state grants provided for by the bond.

A House education committee approved the bill this month, and today it’s awaiting action in a House finance panel. Policy Watch will continue to track this important legislation.

News

N.C. House to roll out its education budget Thursday morning

Key budget writers in the N.C. House of Representatives are expected to roll out their proposals for public education funding early Thursday morning.

The news comes after a top House budget writer told Policy Watch last week that the chamber was likely to announce a spending plan that was considerably kinder to public schools than the budget proposed by Senate lawmakers this month.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, is expected to preside over Thursday’s 8:30 a.m. meeting. Last week, Horn said the House budget is more likely to include across-the-board raises for teachers, less severe funding cuts for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and the restoration of several early-morning cuts to education projects in Democratic-held districts. 

The Senate’s teacher pay plan included an average 3.7 percent raise, but critics said it slighted beginning and veteran teachers, focusing on mid-career educators instead.

“I think the House has a broader view with regard to teachers,” Horn told Policy Watch. “We recognize that our most experienced teachers have gotten the least reward.”

Criticism for the Senate’s $22.9 billion budget plan mounted shortly after its release two weeks ago. Some pointed to new national rankings from the nonpartisan National Education Association that placed North Carolina at 43rd in the U.S. in per-pupil spending in 2017-2018, a slight drop from the previous year, although the state’s teacher pay ranking had risen from 41st to 35th.

Of course, those rankings were not finalized with the Senate’s budget provisions included.

N.C. Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

Last week, Horn also questioned a controversial Senate plan to slash DPI funding by 25 percent in the coming year. That’s about a $13.1 million cut for the state’s top K-12 agency in 2017-2018, coming on top of more than $19 million in cuts to DPI since 2009.

Democrats and public school advocates say the cuts will be most apparent in poor and low-performing school districts that need the support and intervention provided by DPI. Meanwhile, a recently-retired DPI finance head told Policy Watch the deep cuts would “totally destroy” the agency’s operations. 

Horn said he doesn’t expect House leadership to go along with such a plan.

“We ask DPI to do a lot,” said Horn. “… We want new curriculum. This year, we asked them to teach about suicide prevention. We want you to include all these things in the curriculum. Somebody has to develop that curriculum.”

Read more

News, Trump Administration

Report: Trump education budget slams the working class that helped elect him president

Donald Trump speaking

President Trump’s newly-released K-12 budget would hurt the working class voters who helped elect him president in November, according to a new report from The Atlantic.

The report comes with Trump announcing plans to slash spending on the federal education department by more than $9 billion as the Republican president seeks to bolster the school choice programs touted by Trump and his controversial education chief, Betsy DeVos.

That’s not surprising. Trump has long been outspoken in his desire to increase the federal investment in charters and private schools, although his budget’s call to slash $166 million in U.S. grants for career and technical education programs and halve the size of a federal work-study program are being viewed as something of a surprise, particularly given widespread support for such programs among both Republicans and Democrats.

From The Atlantic:

Trump’s education budget, which was published Tuesday as part of full spending plan’s release, would eliminate more than two dozen programs. The budget “reflects a series of tough choices we have had to make when assessing the best use of taxpayer money,” DeVos said in a statement. “It ensures funding for programs with proven results for students while taking a hard look at programs that sound nice but simply haven’t yielded the desired outcomes.”

The final version reiterates many of the funding priorities outlined in the  “skinny”—i.e., preliminary—budget released in March, which had already made it clear that Trump wanted to get rid of the relatively small education programs that, in the eyes of the administration, lack the evidence and reach needed to prove they’re worthy of investment. The congressional deal struck at the beginning of this month to keep the government running into September, on the other hand, maintains level funding for many of the education programs Trump wants to do away with or trim down.

Read more

News, Trump Administration

Trump budget, as expected, to roll out massive school choice expansion

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

In the midst of last week’s near-constant stream of Russia-Trump news, you could be forgiven if you’ve forgotten President Trump has plans to announce the details of his federal budget plan Tuesday.

Already dubbed a “caricature of conservative cruelty” by The Daily Beast, Trump’s plan is expected to include major cuts to programs for the poor as well as a promised expansion of federal school choice support.

Of course, a president’s budget is truly subject to the machinations of Congress, so it remains to be seen whether Trump’s plans will come to fruition, particularly at a time when the Russia scandal seems to have engulfed his legislative agenda.

For the moment, though, those expecting a truly enormous ballooning of federal school choice support for charters and private school vouchers will not be surprised. The most comprehensive coverage, thus far, comes from The Washington Post.

From the Post:

Funding for college work-study programs would be cut in half, public-service loan forgiveness would end and hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools could use for mental health, advanced coursework and other services would vanish under a Trump administration plan to cut $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives, according to budget documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The administration would channel part of the savings into its top priority: school choice. It seeks to spend about $400 million to expand charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools, and another $1 billion to push public schools to adopt choice-friendly policies.

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have repeatedly said they want to shrink the federal role in education and give parents more opportunity to choose their children’s schools.

The documents — described by an Education Department employee as a near-final version of the budget expected to be released next week — offer the clearest picture yet of how the administration intends to accomplish that goal.

Though Trump and DeVos are proponents of local control, their proposal to use federal dollars to entice districts to adopt school-choice policies is reminiscent of the way the Obama administration offered federal money to states that agreed to adopt its preferred education policies through a program called Race to the Top.

The proposed cuts in long-standing programs — and the simultaneous new investment in alternatives to traditional public schools — are a sign of the Trump administration’s belief that federal efforts to improve education have failed. DeVos, who has previously derided government, is now leading an agency she views as an impediment to progress.

“It’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education,” DeVos said this month in Salt Lake City. “Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.”

Read more