Commentary, Education

Governor’s budget shows schools’ desperate need for more revenue

On May 16, more than 20,000 educators and public school advocates marched on Raleigh to demand better funding for North Carolina’s public schools.

Speaking at the event, Governor Cooper captured the protesters’ sentiments, saying “This is far more than just about teacher pay…it’s about real investment in our schools.”

The Governor specified which investments he found most important:

“We have to invest in textbooks. We have to invest in digital learning. We have to improve the physical condition of our schools. We have to hire more nurses. We have to hire more counselors. We have to hire more teacher assistants.  We have to hire more school resource officers. We have to expand the Teaching Fellows program. And we need to give you help for school supplies because we know you are reaching into your own pockets and paying for them, and that’s not right.”

He proposed paying for these investments last year by delaying then-planned tax cuts for corporations and North Carolinians earning more than $200,000 per year.

Ultimately, the General Assembly chose a different route, moving forward with tax cuts in 2019 that are now draining more than $900 million per year from state coffers. When added to prior rounds of tax cuts since 2013, North Carolina’s coffers are now missing $3.6 billion a year. These tax cuts are making it impossible for state leaders’ to make the school investments called on by Cooper and the May 16th marchers.

One needs to look no further than Governor Cooper’s 2019 budget proposal to see how North Carolina’s dedication to low taxes for corporations and wealthy North Carolinians prevents investment of the likes called upon at the May 16th protest. It hardly makes a dent in giving teachers the tools they need to be successful. Cooper’s proposed investments in textbooks, supplies, and support staff – while admirable – would still leave funding well below where it needs to be. Read more

Commentary, Education

Teacher protests helped, but North Carolina still has ways to go to restore school funding

On May 16, over 20,000 teachers descended upon Raleigh to encourage legislative leaders to increase funding for North Carolina’s public schools. The impressive labor action – which shut down 40 school districts across the state – came on the heels of teacher-led protests in other states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

According to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), these protests helped: in four of the five states with large-scale teacher protests, including North Carolina, legislators responded by increasing school funding. According to the report, per-student, inflation-adjusted state funding rose 3 percent in North Carolina.

While educators and other public school advocates deserve praise for pressuring legislators to increase school funding last year, North Carolina’s school budgets have a long way to go to make up for prior-year budget cuts.

Analysis of state budget documents shows that per-student state funding for public schools remains 5.4 percent below pre-Recession levels when adjusted for inflation. However, that number understates the actual budget pressures facing our schools. Recent-year funding increases have targeted teacher pay raises and covering rising retirement and health care costs. While such investments are important, they don’t ensure that North Carolina students have every tool they need for educational success.

North Carolina funds its schools via specific funding allotments. Dollar allotments provide districts a fixed pot of funds for certain activities. Position allotments provide districts with a given number of positions, with the state taking responsibility for paying the appropriate salary for the given position.

Of the 20 largest dollar allotments in FY 2008-09, 15 remain below their pre-Recession levels.

The General Assembly has massively slashed funding for supplies and materials (down 55 percent), textbooks (down 40 percent), central office staff (down 39 percent), and teacher assistants (down 35 percent). Funding for professional development and mentor programs for beginning teachers have been eliminated entirely.

The story is no better for the state’s position allotments. Of the four position allotments that existed in FY 2008-09, three remain below their pre-Recession levels.

Compared to before the Recession, the state is providing schools with fewer teachers, instructional support personnel (nurses, librarians, counselors, psychologists, etc.), and school building administrators (principals and assistant principals).

According to the CBPP report, North Carolina is among the minority of states that still finds its school funding below pre-Recession levels. And the report notes that North Carolina sits alongside Arizona and Oklahoma for using deep school funding cuts to pay for corporate and personal income tax cuts that have mostly benefited the wealthy. As a result, North Carolina faces a budget shortfall of $1.2 billion in 2020, increasing to $1.4 billion in 2022.

We’re already seeing the negative impact austerity budgets are having on North Carolina’s public schools. Other states are increasingly passing us by, and students of color and those from families with low incomes are increasingly paying the price. An alternative path – one which adequately funds our public schools – can improve educational outcomes for students and boost long-term growth. The report highlights that investments in public schools have tremendous long-term impacts, particularly for children from families with low incomes.

Commentary, Education

Over-funded Opportunity Scholarship vouchers continue to drain resources from underfunded public schools

Data from the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority shows that North Carolina’s largest voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship, was over-funded by approximately $16.3 million in FY 2017-18. The state appropriated $44.8 million to subsidize tuition costs for students attending private schools last fiscal year, but issued only $28.1 million in vouchers.

That $16.3 million is money that could have otherwise been put to productive use in our public schools. Per student funding for North Carolina’s public schools remains five percent below pre-Recession levels when adjusted for inflation. Our schools receive fewer teachers, instructional support personnel, and assistant principals than they did prior to the 2010 change in General Assembly leadership. Funding for textbooks, supplies, and teacher assistants are all down more than 35 percent from pre-Recession levels.

Despite the lack of demand for the program, legislators increased funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program by an additional 22 percent ($10 million) for FY 2018-19. Funding increases continue to outpace demand. As a result, the level of voucher funding that will sit untouched is likely to increase to about $19.3 million in FY 2018-19.

Absent action from the General Assembly, funding for the under-subscribed program is set to increase by $10 million per year through FY 2027-28. The Opportunity Scholarship voucher program is the only educational initiative for K-12 students with guaranteed funding increases.

Of course, the financial hit to North Carolina’s public schools extends beyond the millions of dollars sitting needlessly unused in state coffers. Researchers from NC State found that nearly half of all families who applied for, but failed to receive a voucher, ended up sending their child to a private school anyway. That implies that almost half of the $54.8 million of Opportunity Scholarship funding is being wasted, subsidizing activities that people were going to do anyway. The remaining $28 million or so is also wasted if the voucher students are getting a worse education in private schools. Unfortunately, policymakers refuse to allow any serious evaluation of the program.

[Correction: This post originally estimated the over-funding at $16.8 million per year. Subsequent data showed the actual level of over-funding at $16.3 million]
Commentary, Education

Senator Berger’s signature education program continues to fail

In October, researchers from NC State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation helped to confirm what many educational advocates have long claimed: North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program is a failure. This week’s State Board of Education meeting included a presentation on the evaluation, which served as an important wake-up call to North Carolina’s policymakers. However the evaluation – while rigorous and well-written – leaves many important questions unanswered.

The Read to Achieve program, created by the 2012 budget bill, is an effort to improve early-grades’ reading proficiency by refusing to promote students who fail the state’s third grade reading test. Read to Achieve was based on a similar initiative from Florida and was championed by Senator Phil Berger.

While Florida’s program coincided with improved test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there was little indication that improved scores were driven by forcing struggling young readers to repeat third grade. After all, Florida coupled its third grade retention policy with large investments in interventions to help students become better readers, such as increasing instructional time, hiring reading coaches and intervention teachers, purchasing new instructional materials, investing in teacher professional development, and offering summer reading camps to struggling young readers. In fact, a recent study found Florida’s retention policy had no impact on improving the high school graduation rates of retained students.

North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program took a sharply different approach, attempting to replicate Florida’s apparent success without providing any interventions to help children pass their third grade reading test. North Carolina only invested in diagnostic reading tests to help teachers identify struggling readers and summer reading camps for third graders who had already failed the state reading exam and were facing the possibility of repeating the grade. Districts were required to provide additional tutoring and instruction for failing students, but did not receive additional funding to carry out these mandates.

The Friday Institute evaluation focuses on the narrow question of whether the eligibility for additional reading help (i.e., summer reading camps, additional reading instruction) improved future reading scores for students who just barely failed their third grade reading test. Their research concludes that these interventions have provided no measurable benefit to struggling readers.

These findings are important, as they can help the state reassess and modify the supports provided to struggling readers.

However, the assessment fails to answer the question that I think most North Carolinians want to better understand: why has third grade reading performance plummeted? Since the adoption of the Read to Achieve program, North Carolina’s third grade reading performance has fallen precipitously, more than any other state test.

Are declining third-grade reading scores the product of over-stressing 8 and 9-year olds by telling them they’ll be held back if they fail? Is it because incessant testing kills kids’ (and teachers’) love of reading? Is it because these cohorts have experienced slashed funding for NC Pre-K and other classroom supports?

Regardless, the plummeting test scores and the evaluation paint a damning picture of Senator Berger’s signature education initiative. We already know the program is failing to boost reading achievement. Overall performance continues to drop. And we now know via this latest evaluation that the limited assistance provided to struggling readers has been insufficient to boost their scores. It’s clear that Read to Achieve has been a profound failure and should be abandoned.

Commentary

Hidden policies in General Assembly “technical corrections” bill should be rejected

Legislative leaders have used December’s lame duck session as a last-gasp effort to pass a number of regressive policy measures that will move the state backwards. General Assembly leaders are in a rush to pass these bills before they lose their veto-proof majorities on January 1. Bills related to implementing the new voter ID requirement and the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement have understandably generated the most press coverage. But legislators are also trying to sneak through several changes to education policy that should be rejected.

SB 469, inaccurately titled as a “Technical Corrections” bill, creates several substantive changes to the state’s education policies. Notably, the bill would grease the rails for school segregation by making it easier for wealthy suburban communities to create “municipal charter schools” that would exacerbate gross inequities within North Carolina’s school system. Additionally, the bill would needlessly funnel $8,000 a year to certain families of private school students. Both are moves in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, the bill is bundled with a few good education policy changes that should be passed, making the Governor’s veto decision more difficult. Specifically, the bill would allow Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County to avoid being placed in the unproven, undemocratic, and unpopular Innovative School District program. Another section would protect pay for principals whose schools have lost enrollment due to Hurricane Florence.

Both of these are good ideas, embraced by leaders of both parties, that could easily be addressed this month in a clean bill or passed when the new General Assembly is seated in January. Lawmakers broadly support allowing Wayne County school leaders to continue its reform efforts at Carver Heights. Similarly, nobody thinks principals should face pay cuts due to a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence.

If Governor Cooper were to veto SB 469, he’d have strong bipartisan support for the measures related to Carver Heights and principal pay (as well as the number of other truly technical corrections included in the bill). The delay created by a veto might extend a period of policy uncertainty, but the issues would be addressed in due time – a small price to pay to prevent the further segregation of our public schools and the straining of public school budgets for school voucher programs.

Below are additional details on the deleterious changes proposed by SB 469. If the bill becomes law, legislators should focus on repealing these sections in the 2019 legislative session. Read more