With another day of negotiations on tap, the Wilmington Star News says it’s time for state representatives and senators to end their posturing and find some common ground. The editorial board writes that the current budget logjam has only served to create more uncertainty for educators and North Carolina’s public schools. Here an excerpt from Thursday’s editorial:

Budget cutsIt was encouraging news when, on Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, announced that the House and Senate had agreed not to tie a teacher pay increase to tenure. The stipulation had been inserted by the Senate, which until Tuesday stood firm by its decision. While the two sides still had much to discuss – not the least of which was the Senate’s insistence on cutting funding for teacher assistants – they had cleared one roadblock.

That kumbaya moment didn’t last long.

Senate leaders walked out on the budget talks Wednesday morning, an indication that this will be a very long “short session.” House members of the conference committee wanted to hear from superintendents about the education budget; Senate leaders countered that it would be against the rules and walked out in a huff.

They returned, but news media covering the talks reported that the mood was much less harmonious.

By law, the General Assembly is supposed to have a budget in place by July 1, the start of the 2014-15 fiscal year. It is not unusual for negotiations to drag the process out a few weeks, but typically by this point there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Based on the current stalemate, things don’t look promising for a spending plan anytime soon.

Gov. Pat McCrory and the state House have stood together on one side, while the Senate’s budget contained significant differences in how to handle education and Medicaid, among other things. The conference committee reached an agreement on Medicaid last week, though it still falls short. Nevertheless, it was progress.

Likewise, it seemed Tuesday that the Honorables were moving toward a budget agreement. Then it was back to square one.

The House is right to object to severe cuts in funding for teacher assistants. Regardless of a study senators tout that said teacher assistants have no measurable improvement on student achievement, teachers know they are an invaluable resource, particularly in classrooms where a large percentage of children need help catching up academically. As more pressure is put on teachers and students to Pass That Test, teacher assistants give their education partners the one thing no pay raise can: time – time to spend working in small groups or individually with students.

Yet, if the House and Senate can’t sit down long enough to discuss the issue, school systems won’t even be sure what money they will and won’t have to spend next year. Let us hope that calmer heads and a spirit of compromise for the good of the people prevail. Uncertainty is no way to run state government.

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Budget negotiations resume Wednesday morning with Senate and House members still at odds over how much of a bump in pay teachers will receive.

One of the sticking points Tuesday centered on the Senate’s proposal to pay for those raises by eliminating about 7,400 teacher assistants.

Stokes County Rep. Bryan Holloway said that would hamstring local school superintendents and make it more difficult for teachers to teach:

“I really just think the TAs are important; I think having an extra hand is an asset to a teacher,” argued Rep. Holloway while jockeying for the House’s latest budget proposal.

Sen. Harry Brown countered that the value of teaching assistants was being overstated:

“There are lots of studies out there that look at teacher assistants and what kind of impact it has on student results. And most of them, if not all of them, will tell you that it has very little to do with student results,” countered the Onslow County Republican.

To hear a portion of Tuesday’s budget hearing, click below. For the latest on the budget talks, read this piece by NC Policy Watch education reporter Lindsay Wagner. Wagner will be covering Wednesday’s conference committee hearing.

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The good folks at the N.C. Budget & Tax Center are out with a new information graphic this week detailing the roadblocks facing students on their way to a high-quality education. The graphic (below) follows students as they travel through the K-12 system toward a two- or four-year college degree, showing how budget choices by NC lawmakers are making it harder and harder to educate our children.

Education Investments

As the U.S. Department of Justice and several civil rights groups head to court in Winston-Salem to challenge North Carolina’s monster voting-law, the Charlotte Observer writes that it’s time to reinstate preregistering of teenage voters. Here’s more from the paper’s editorial board:

vote2This is what happens when politics and ideology overrule common sense. In their zeal to “reform” the voting system in North Carolina, Republican lawmakers pushed through a change that has created confusion, more work and wasted money.

That change was to end preregistration of teens so once they reached voting age, they would automatically be registered to vote. And they could do so at state driver’s license offices which would make it a one-stop convenience for newly licensed young drivers.

Not surprisingly, it was an effective voter registration move. More than 150,000 young people preregistered from the time the program went into effect in 2010 to September 2013. By the way, the policy was adopted in 2009 with bipartisan legislative support.

But last year, lawmakers made sweeping changes to N.C. voter laws in the state, and one was the nonsensical idea of ending preregistration of teen voters. Now, officials of the state Department of Motor Vehicles and of the N.C. elections board are saying that the change has created confusion and more work.

That’s because DMV officials had trouble figuring out at what age applicants should be allowed to register to vote. Some 17-year-olds are eligible to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 when the general election is held. Counties and municipalities can have general elections in off years that fall on different dates in each location. DMV officials could not set one formula in the database for determining which 17-year-olds should get a voter registration application.

As a result, state elections officials decided last November that voter registration applications could be given only to individuals 18 and older. Read More

The Riverkeepers for the Cape Fear and the French Broad are among the latest environmentalists to speak out against the coal ash management bill that won final approval in the NC House on Thursday.

The Cape Fear’s Kemp Burdette and the French Broad’s Hartwell Carson say the revised version of the Senate’s coal ash bill gives enormous leeway to Duke Energy and fails to protect North Carolina communities and waterways.

Here’s more from their press release issued by the NC Conservation Network:

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette (left), and French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson (right)

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette (left), and French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson (right)

The bill would protect Duke Energy from its obligation to eliminate the source of groundwater contamination – leaking, unlined coal ash pits at 14 facilities across North Carolina. A judge’s ruling earlier this year explicitly gave state environmental officials the authority to force Duke to remove sources of groundwater pollution. This bill attempts to undermine that ruling.

Also troubling, the bill gives DENR and the Coal Ash Management Commission complete discretion over the 10 remaining facilities not prioritized for cleanup by Duke Energy and Gov. Pat McCrory. Without specific guidelines from lawmakers, those bodies could allow Duke to cap all of its remaining ponds in place, which would do nothing to stop groundwater pollution or isolate coal ash from our waterways.

“DENR has documented groundwater contamination at all 14 coal ash facilities in North Carolina for years, yet they’ve done nothing to address the problem,” said French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. “Now, our legislators want to give them total control over prioritizing sites and setting timelines for cleanup. That’s unacceptable and irresponsible.”

The House took a weak Senate bill and made it even weaker. They also used procedural tricks to avoid debating and voting on several amendments that would have added additional sites to the priority clean-up list.

“By refusing to even vote on several amendments that would have required a full, prioritized cleanup at sites other than those cherry-picked by Duke Energy and Gov. Pat McCrory, the House undermined individual legislators’ legitimate concerns for their constituents and communities,” said Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette. “In short, they chose politics over people.”