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Ohio’s charter schools—many of which are run by for-profit education management corporations—are notorious for misspending tax dollars and producing poor academic results. Lawmakers there had a chance to do something about it this summer by passing legislation that would strengthen charter school oversight—but that legislation ultimately failed.

From The Washington Post:

What happened? The bill — which, again, had the votes to pass — was tabled because, apparently, some lawmakers still want to make changes. The bill is supposed to come up again in September, but who really knows, given tepid efforts in the past to improve schools. Even if a bill passes later, implementation will be significantly delayed.

You’d think that the lousy state of Ohio’s charter system would have set a fire under everyone with even half a fingerprint on it. How bad is it? A June story in the Akron Beacon Journal started this way:

No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.

The newspaper had reviewed 4,263 audits released last year by the state and concluded that charter schools in the state appear to have misspent public money “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.” It says that “since 2001, state auditors have uncovered $27.3 million improperly spent by charter schools, many run by for-profit companies, enrolling thousands of children and producing academic results that rival the worst in the nation.”

So what does the state of Ohio’s charter schools have to do with North Carolina?

It’s worth taking a closer look because, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, “only Michigan and Texas have a greater portion of charter schools [than Ohio] operated by private, for-profit companies, which are not compelled to disclose how they spend public money.

In North Carolina, lawmakers lifted the cap back in 2011 on the 100-charter school limit—and since then, more and more private, for-profit education management companies have been making their way into the state, some of which have sought to hide how they spend tax dollars. Read More

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“They’ve already taken away longevity pay, master’s degree pay, and tenure…and now they’re taking away retirement health insurance,” said North Carolina Association of Educators’ vice president Mark Jewell on Monday.

“The General Assembly is saying to educators thinking of working in North Carolina: please look somewhere else. We don’t want long-term educators in our state,” said Jewell.

Senate lawmakers buried deep in their budget proposal earlier this month a provision that would end health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016. [Click here for the full story.]

NCAE’s Jewell is concerned about the provision’s implications when it comes to recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

“Under this provision—if it becomes law—teachers would have to work much later, until they can receive Medicare benefits,” said Jewell. “Or they would have to take another job once they retire to get some kind of health insurance benefit until they qualify for Medicare.”

“We have a lot of teachers retiring coupled with a large decrease in participation in teacher education programs at the university system — enrollments have fallen 27 percent since 2010,” Jewell added. “So it looks like we have a big teacher shortage ahead.”

As the cost of college soars, students are reaching a tipping point when it comes to how much debt they’re willing to take on in order to enter the teaching profession, according to NC State University’s assistant dean for teacher education, Michael Maher.

“We have students who are graduating with degrees in math and engineering making $70,000,” said Maher. “So there becomes this issue of debt load—students say ‘only if I am going to make a good salary can I take on more debt.'”

Maher, who was a high school teacher during the mid-1990s, said the teaching profession was once an attractive prospect thanks to the overall benefits package that teachers were once guaranteed.

“I thought it was great,” said Maher of teaching. “I had access to the state’s retirement system and a guarantee of good health benefits upon retirement. Now out of pocket expenses are increasing, premiums are rising, and salaries are not going up, and now this…so what’s the advantage now?”

Maher noted that the Senate’s proposal to slash health retirement benefits affects UNC faculty, too, making it difficult to retain top notch professors were the provision to become law.

Tacey Miller, a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who graduated earlier this year and just secured a job as a third grade teacher in Onslow County, said she continues to be surprised by the General Assembly’s actions.

“So much has happened with the education system in North Carolina that nothing should surprise me anymore,” said Miller. “But something like [eliminating health retirement benefits] comes out in the news and I just think, why? Where are they redistributing this money, then? Even if they reduce class sizes, you still need actual classrooms to teach the kids.”

“It just seems like we’re making it harder for people to be teachers,” said Miller.

The House and Senate are expected to spend the rest of the summer—and possibly part of the fall—hammering out a final 2015-17 budget deal—stay tuned to see if the elimination of health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.

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Colorado’s Supreme Court struck down school vouchers on Monday, finding that they violate the state’s constitution because they send public dollars to private, religious institutions.

“Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever . . . .”

“This stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear: A school district may not aid religious schools. Yet aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP [school voucher program] does,” reads the court’s opinion, announced by Chief Justice Nance E. Rice.

Read the entire Colorado Supreme Court ruling here.

Colorado’s voucher program was only operational in the Douglas County school district, the state’s third largest—but Monday’s Supreme Court ruling has implications for school districts across Colorado, according to The Washington Post.

North Carolina’s own statewide school voucher program—known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program—is on pause pending a ruling from the state Supreme Court, which could come any day.

At issue? Whether or not the Opportunity Scholarship Program violates North Carolina’s constitution—which, similar to Colorado’s, says that taxpayer dollars should be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

Click here for the latest on school vouchers in North Carolina.

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The News & Observer reports that when faced with questions about why the Senate included a provision in its budget proposal that would end retirement health care for future teachers and state employees, some Senate leaders wouldn’t talk.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, who chairs the Pensions, Retirement and Aging Committee, said he couldn’t comment on the proposal because it came from the Senate’s top budget writers – not his committee. And Sen. Harry Brown, one of the chamber’s lead budget writers, walked away from a reporter without speaking when asked about the change.

Calls from N.C. Policy Watch to Senators Brown and Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) also went unanswered as we worked on a story last week highlighting the budget provision, which would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016.

Senator Phil Berger’s office did talk to the N&O, however.

“North Carolina has a massive $26 billion unfunded liability for retiree medical coverage, and the Senate budget is a prudent way to address the long-term viability of the State Health Plan,” said Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger.

Chuck Stone, lobbyist for the State Employees Association of NC (SEANC), told the N&O (as well as Policy Watch) that the Senate’s plan isn’t the way to go.

“Once you take [the health retirement benefit] away, what incentive is there to work for the state?” said Stone. “We are in a rush to have the worst State Health Plan coverage in the United States of America.”

Check out Chris Fitzsimon’s column on the Senate’s plan to end health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees published this morning.
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Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) filed a motion Tuesday asking the state Supreme Court to allow the controversial school voucher program to proceed for the 2015-16 academic year while the high court continues to debate the constitutionality of allowing families to use public dollars for tuition at private schools.

“Intervenor-Defendants respectfully request that this Court modify its 12 December 2014 Order granting in part a writ of supersedeas and permit the Opportunity Scholarship Program to move forward for the 2014-2015 academic year unimpeded by the Superior Court’s permanent injunction,” wrote attorneys who filed the motion on behalf of Senator Berger and Speaker Moore, who are defendant intervenors in a case that is seeking to halt the school voucher program.

The North Carolina Supreme Court last released opinions on June 11, and many expected a decision on the case at that time from the state’s highest court.

But a decision did not come, and the next scheduled date for Supreme Court opinions is not until August 21 — a point in time, as Tuesday’s motion highlights, when it will be nearly impossible to ensure that the program can continue for the upcoming academic year should the Court decide that the Opportunity Scholarship Program passes constitutional muster. (The Supreme Court is, however, able to issue opinions at any time and without regard to the scheduled dates, if the Court so desires.)

Last summer, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood put a halt to the Opportunity Scholarships program, enacted by the General Assembly in 2013.

Judge Hobgood found that the program failed constitutional muster for several reasons—chiefly because it funnels public dollars that should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining the uniform system of free public schools to private institutions instead, which the state holds to almost no curricular requirements or standards of accountability.

“The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” Judge Hobgood said.

The state, along with defendant-intervenors for parents as well as then-Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger appealed Hobgood’s ruling to the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals ruled last fall that the program could continue for this past academic year as the fate of the program was debated.

State lawmakers passed a 2013 budget that tagged $10 million to be used for the Opportunity Scholarships beginning in 2014. The vouchers, worth $4,200 per student annually, funnel taxpayer dollars to largely unaccountable private schools––70 percent of which are affiliated with religious institutions.

Proponents of the voucher program say it’s necessary to provide low-income families with options outside of the public school system—especially for those whose schools do not have the means to ensure a student’s academic success.

The House’s 2015-17 budget, passed last month, proposes expanding the school voucher program from $10 million to $17.6 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The Senate’s proposal does the same, but with recurring funds instead and for both years of the biennium.