Education, Environment, News

Senate approves budget, now heads to N.C. House

Members of the N.C. Senate approved a $23.9 billion budget Thursday morning that, much to Democrats’ consternation, swept through the chamber with no allowance for amendments.

Policy Watch has detailed the primary aspects of the GOP-authored spending plan. The headlines include a 6.5 percent raise for teachers and another round of tax cuts.

But critics say the legislature still failed to adequately fund public schools, approved scores of “pork” provisions, slighted the state’s well-documented environmental headaches, and effectively quashed amendments to the privately-negotiated budget by bundling it in a conference committee report.

The spending plan is now bound for the state House, where it’s likely to pass in the coming days. Republicans also hold a veto-proof majority in the event that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes the budget.

From the progressive N.C. Justice Center’s Alexandra Sirota, director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, today:

One would think that legislative leaders would be proud of yet another round of cutting taxes for the wealthiest and shortchanging everyone else. But if they are, why did they develop their budget in secret and why are they limiting opportunities for debate and amendments?

Maybe they don’t want North Carolinians to know that they chose to keep the tax rate cuts scheduled for 2019 that will mean $900 million less for communities across the state.

Or that they are putting us on a path that will mean revenues will not be able to maintain current services for the state’s population in future years.

Maybe they don’t want North Carolinians to know that the tax cuts aren’t growing our economy.

Or maybe they don’t want to have to engage with teachers and students who know their classrooms need state investments to ensure a sound, basic education.

Maybe they don’t want to have to hear from older North Carolinians who won’t be able to stay in their homes due to a lack of investment in home health care and meal delivery. Or from the families who are living on bottled water because their water is toxic.

Maybe they just don’t want to deal with parents who want their kids to be cared for at a high-quality child care while they work or the parents who can’t afford the rising tuition for their children’s education and training after high school.

Maybe they don’t want to discuss it.

But we should ask them: why prioritize tax cuts and hurt our state?

If I didn’t have a good answer, I wouldn’t want to have to answer these questions either.

Education, News

Just hours after its release, key North Carolina committee approves $23.9 billion spending proposal

From L to R: Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, Gov. Roy Cooper, House Speaker Tim Moore.

[Note: This post has been updated to include comments from Democrats’ Tuesday afternoon budget press conference.]

Just hours after North Carolina Republicans released their $23.9 billion state budget, a key state House committee signed off on the spending proposal Tuesday afternoon over the objections of angry Democrats.

Tuesday’s “up” or “down” vote on the budget conference report, which did not allow for amendments, clears the budget plan for a full chamber vote in the coming days. It’s an unprecedented, controversial process for the state budget, one that has prompted sharp rebukes from minority party leaders in Raleigh, as well as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

“You wonder how our colonists felt with the king of England. We now know,” House Rep. Billy Richardson, a Fayetteville Democrat, told reporters Tuesday.

“I’m having problems reconciling right now whether I’m in North Carolina or North Korea,” added Rep. Mickey Michaux, a longtime Durham Democrat.

House and Senate budget committee members held a joint meeting on the plan Tuesday morning, although it did not require a vote from the Senate committee under their chamber’s rules, legislators said.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate negotiated the spending package behind closed doors, and appear poised to approve the budget this week with a minimum of debate. The Senate is expected to debate the budget proposal Wednesday morning, with House lawmakers likely to take it up Thursday and Friday.

“Fiscally responsible, pro-growth policies have allowed (the state Senate) to come to a budget agreement with the House that invests additional money in public education, increases pay for teachers and state employees, and provides tax relief for millions of North Carolinians,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Guilford, Rockingham, said on Twitter Monday.

Democrats held a press conference Tuesday afternoon to roll out their would-be budget amendments, claiming  their party would have sought larger teacher raises, more funding for early childhood education, environmental mitigation dollars and more.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson again slammed Republican budget-writers over process. “We have never been shut out to this extent,” Jackson said. “This has never been done to Republicans.”

Jackson added that he believes the GOP opted for the conference report process, which some Republicans lauded as more “efficient,” because they were “scared” to vote “no” on Democratic amendments to teacher pay and the environment.

“It’s clear that the Republican legislature continues to leave veteran teachers and public education behind in order to protect their tax breaks for corporations and people making over $200,000 a year,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement late Monday after the spending plan was released to the public.

“There are still many more questions than answers in this budget as people try to read and understand major policy changes the Republicans have kept secret and are now forcing legislators to vote up or down with no way to amend it.”

GOP lawmakers, however, touted the proposed budget as a major investment in education, speeding an average 6.5 percent pay increase for teachers, principal pay raises, funds for “enhancement” teachers in the arts, as well as millions in school safety projects cleared by a legislative committee this year after a deadly school shooting in Florida left 17 dead.

Tuesday’s frantic budget activity comes days after 20,000 to 30,000 teachers and public school advocates swamped Raleigh to demand a greater state investment in schools.

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), an organization that lobbies for teachers at the General Assembly, organized last week’s rally. NCAE President Mark Jewell issued a statement quickly after the spending plan’s release, slamming GOP budget-writers for their process.

From Jewell’s statement:

“I’m proud of the tens of thousands of educators, parents, and community members who marched and rallied on May 16 demanding more for our students and respect for public education. While there has been some very modest movement for our most experienced educators in the General Assembly’s budget, they continue to be disrespected with raises that shortchange their commitment to our students and this state. Instead, this General Assembly will spend almost twice as much on a pay-for-performance bonus scheme than on serious raises for experienced educators. Gov. Cooper put forward a budget that valued our most experienced educators with raises ranging from 5-7%. This General Assembly continues to prioritize corporate board rooms over classrooms by continuing massive corporate tax cuts instead of investments in our public schools.”

Republicans also dismissed calls to nix tax cuts for corporations and individuals. Critics say the cuts drain billions in state revenues every year that could be spent on public schools.

“We will never catch up if we continue to prioritize tax cuts for corporations over teacher pay,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat.

Policy Watch is still analyzing the massive budget document, but see below for North Carolina public school highlights in the GOP-authored budget, which is all but certain to pass in the Republican-dominated legislature. Keep checking back for updates.

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Education, News, Trump Administration

Secretary Betsy DeVos touches off controversy again, says schools can report undocumented students

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is under the microscope again.

This time, some are criticizing the wealthy GOP booster after she told members of Congress this week that local schools and communities should decide whether to report undocumented students and families to federal immigration authorities.

DeVos, who was selected for the top education post last year by President Donald Trump, has angered public school advocates before, over topics like teacher strikes, school choice funding, and a remarkably uncomfortable interview with 60 Minutes.

From ABC News:

The head of the Education Department shifted the responsibility of reporting undocumented students to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to principals and teachers when she said on Tuesday, “it’s a local community decision.”

“I think that is — that is a school decision,” DeVos said during her testimony before the House Education and Workforce Committee after Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., pressed her on the issue of undocumented students. “It’s a local community decision and again I refer to the fact that we have laws and we also are compassionate and I urge this body to do its job and address and clarify where there is confusion around this.”

Espaillat immediately rebuked the secretary’s statement, stressing that immigration policies are defined and executed by the federal government, not by communities.

“Let me just remind Madam Chair that immigration law is federal law,” he said. “It’s not a local law. It’s not governed by a municipality.”

“You cannot have immigration law for one state be different for another state and it applies to everybody across the country,” he added.

This is not the first time the secretary has faced controversy.

During her tenure at the Department of Education, she has faced criticism for comments she’s made on school safety, black history, and other matters.

In March, she said arming teachers “should be an option for states and communities to consider” during an interview after a visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

In her highly contentious confirmation hearing, DeVos stirred up vehement objections to her nomination after hedging on an answer about guns and ultimately conceding that guns might be needed in schools in states like Wyoming to defend against “potential grizzlies.”

Her most recent comments are drawing considerable backlash from civil rights groups.

“Let’s be clear: Any school that reports a child to ICE would violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court has made clear that every child in America has a right to a basic education, regardless of immigration status. Secretary DeVos is once again wrong,” Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

During the heated exchange with Espaillat, DeVos referenced a Supreme Court decision that ruled that all children — regardless of their immigration status — are entitled to a free public education.

“This was a Supreme Court decision rendered many years ago and so there are undocumented children in K-12 education today that we support and we give education to on a daily basis.”

Critics pointed to that same 1982 decision, Plyler v. Doe, as they sought to poke holes in her testimony.

“The Court determined in 1982 that the Constitution requires all public schools to provide a free public education, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, to every child, regardless of immigration status,” Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said. “Any public school or school district that denies an education to any undocumented child – whether by refusing to enroll, by limiting access to the programs and benefits provided to other students, or by reporting a child to ICE – has violated the United States Constitution.”

Education, News

New Census figures: Minus charter spending, N.C.’s education spending ranks near the bottom of the nation

North Carolina education spending per-student ranks near the bottom of the nation, according to new U.S. Census figures released this week. 

The data, which do not factor in North Carolina’s growing spending on charters, placed the state at 45th in the nation, not counting Washington, D.C.

Total spending per student, about $8,792, lags the U.S. average of $11,762, according to the Census charts.

The funding levels were for the 2016 fiscal year. Census officials noted they did not include charter holders who were not governmental entities.

North Carolina charters are approved by the State Board of Education but run by private, non-profits. Of course, charter spending is of import in this discussion. Since North Carolina lawmakers lifted the 100-charter cap in 2011, the charter sector has risen to include 173 schools.

A report this year from the National Education Association tallied up the state’s per-pupil spending, including charter funding, to $9,528 per student. According to the NEA, that ranks 39th in the nation, trailing the national average by more than $2,300.

The new Census data arrive about a week after 20,000 to 30,000 teachers and education advocates swarmed Raleigh to rally before the N.C. General Assembly. Among their grievances, teachers complained of insufficient school spending, poor pay, cuts to their retirement benefits, over-testing, and hostility from state leaders.

See below for the state rankings:

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Education, News

Report points to financial, legal complications of Matthews charter school battle

Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg

A new report authored by a longtime N.C. General Assembly attorney points to multiple financial and legal complications associated with a controversial proposal to clear a town-run charter school in the Charlotte suburb of Matthews.

Among those complications, the report—written by Gerry Cohen, a former General Assembly lawyer and chief of bill drafting—notes state law bars towns like Matthews from taking on debt to build a municipal charter.

Nor would the town be cleared to use state funds in order to buy land or build a school, meaning the Charlotte suburb would likely have to cough up millions for the school upfront, possibly by raising taxes.

The report claimed significant implications for local teachers’ retirement benefits too.

Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat who opposes the Matthews charter, questioned Monday how a town with a budget of about $23 million would pay for a $30 million school. “I don’t think proponents of this bill have leveled with the people of Matthews about the fiscal realities,” Jackson said.

Last year’s House Bill 514 applies to the Charlotte suburbs of Matthews and Mint Hill, although it has the potential to set the table for similar suburban clashes in large school systems such as Wake County. And, as Policy Watch has reported, it comes laden with concerns about the creation of a predominantly white town splitting off from a decidedly more diverse school system like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). 

Jackson said last year’s bill, co-sponsored by Matthews Republican Bill Brawley, would be a “precedent-setting piece of legislation” if approved by state lawmakers this year.

Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg

Cohen’s report was touted Monday in a press conference by critics of the so-called “secession” proposal, chief among them school district leaders in CMS. The former legislative attorney said he was asked to draft the report by CMS lawyer George Battle, although he said he was not directed what to write.

CMS officials have been engaged in a war of words with Matthews town leaders in recent months. Matthews leaders say they want more say in their local schools, as well as a long-term guarantee that the district won’t force student reassignments in order to diversify racially-isolated schools like those found in the city’s predominantly white suburbs.

The progressive N.C. Justice Center issued a report this year that found CMS to be, by far, the most racially segregated district in North Carolina (Disclosure: The Justice Center is Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit).

School district leaders counter that splitting the district would be costly and inefficient, unpopular with Matthews residents, and may only exacerbate segregation worries.

It’s unclear whether Brawley’s draft bill will be a priority for the Republican-led legislature as members ramp up their short session in the coming weeks. The bill swept through the state House last year. But after a study committee led by Brawley this year punted on any specific school system splits, the proposal seemed to lose momentum.

CMS Chair Mary McCray

CMS Board of Education Chair Mary McCray told reporters Monday that the district is speaking out forcefully on House Bill 514 after leaders “made multiple attempts to provide reasonable solutions.”

School board Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek said Cohen’s analysis “could and should cause pause” with lawmakers.

“This bill is a nightmare for taxpayers,” said McCray, arguing that residents of Matthews would be “double-taxed” to support the charter school by both the county district and the town.

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