At this week’s State Board of Education meeting the usually mundane topic of transportation was addressed, revealing some serious issues relating to transportation at charter schools.  Under North Carolina law, charter schools are exempt from statutes and rules applicable to traditional public schools.  The purpose of this law is to allow for innovation and to let charters to circumvent teaching licensing standards.  Oddly, this law also exempts charters from the school bus safety regulations that are followed by public schools.

Derek Graham, chief of the Department of Public Instructions Transportation Division, stated that currently only 40 of 98 (41%) of charter schools provide transportation for their students even though they do receive funds for transportation.   This causes students who cannot provide for their own transportation to be excluded from these schools and contributes to the higher levels of segregation found in North Carolina charter schools.   Mr. Graham was concerned that if charter school buses were held to the same standards as public school buses, the few charters that do provide transportation will stop because most of the buses they use are retired public school buses that no longer make the grade.

However, as Chairman of the State Board of Education William Harrison rightfully pointed out, student safety comes first and there is really no way to get around that.  Most of the regulations that have been enacted were in response to accidents and incidents involving buses in the past that nobody wants to see repeated.  The Board now faces a no-win situation and must decide whether they should effectively decrease the already minimal level of transportation services at charter schools or push student safety by the wayside.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the next round of the state-level Race to the Top grant competition would target $500 million to states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development.  Both the North Carolina Senate and House have targeted the state’s award-winning early childhood programs, More at Four and Smart Start, for devastating 20% cuts.  The special provisions included in the budget also inexplicably move More at Four out of the Department of Public Instruction and into the Department of Health and Human Services.

It is highly unlikely the Department of Education will reward North Carolina with one of these lucrative grants if the General Assembly eviscerates the very programs the Department of Education is trying to promote.  Aside from the fact that these programs provide essential services and are lauded by business leaders, military leaders, economists, and educators, given the level of proposed cuts to North Carolina’s already underfunded education system legislators simply cannot afford to turn away opportunities for additional education funding.

 

A recently released report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education concludes that the best way to improve graduation rates is to target low-income students who are currently being underserved by our educational system.  Once a perennial world leader in college completion, the U.S. now ranks 12th out of 36 developed countries in the number of 25-34 year-old adults with some type of college degree.  In a 2009 address to a Joint Session of Congress, President Obama announced his goal for the U.S. to regain this status by 2020.  The report concludes that it is impossible to achieve this goal unless we target federal funding, college access and support services,  and financial aid expenditures toward low-income and underperforming schools.

 

The accolades for North Carolina’s early childhood programming continue to pile up.  A new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) on the state of preschool in the United States ranks North Carolina as one of just five states with preschool programs that meet all ten of NIEER’s quality benchmarks regarding teacher credentials, class sizes, and other factors believed to influence the classroom experience.  When viewed alongside other independent studies that detail the economic and educational benefits of our early childhood education system, it is truly baffling that the House leadership would propose such devastating cuts to one of North Carolina’s best investments.

 

 

This article is part of a series lifting the veil on the numerous and profound changes to vital North Carolina programs and services made in the lengthy and wonky special provisions of the budget.  We’re starting with the special provisions in the House budget and will continue when the Senate releases its version of the budget.

Special provisions in focus: K-12 Education

These special provisions and the policy changes included can be categorized as:

  1. A. Job Killers
  2. B. “We didn’t do it!”, i.e. pass the buck and the tough decisions to the locals

Governor Perdue and the NC House leadership have both claimed to have fully funded teaching positions in their recent budget proposals despite cutting hundreds of millions from state funding for public schools.  In the case of the governor’s budget, both classroom teachers and teaching assistants are protected from direct cuts, while the House leadership only protects direct funding for classroom teachers.

Despite such claims of protecting teachers from cuts, however, neither the governor’s budget proposal nor the House leadership recommendations would prevent layoffs among teachers and other valued public school personnel like guidance counselors, teaching assistants, and assistant principals.  In fact, not counting the resultant additional local cuts, the state Department of Public Instruction estimates that more than 12,200 public school employees, including almost 9,000 teaching assistants and more than 460 teachers, will lose their jobs under the recommendations of the House leadership.

The gap between claims and on-the-ground reality lies partly in the complexity of North Carolina’s formulas for allocating state funds to public schools and partly in pushing hard decisions onto local officials.  North Carolina allocates state funds to local schools based on a multitude of allotment formulas, only one of which is designated as the allotment for classroom teachers.  While the House leadership did not cut this allotment, several allotments that the leadership did choose to cut also fund classroom teachers, but at the discretion of local school districts.

Over the past two years, state policymakers have required local school districts to identify more than $300 million in cuts to school personnel and expenses and refund the “savings” to the state.  As a result of these flexible cuts and declining local revenues, local school districts have cut the number of teachers by more than 4,200, the number of teaching assistants by nearly 3,700, and other positions by more than 2,700.  Over the same two years, increased federal support to North Carolina public schools through the Recovery Act, most of which will run out by the end of the fiscal year, enabled public schools to retain more than 5,700 teachers and nearly 1,300 teaching assistants that otherwise may have been cut.

The House leadership recommended increasing these local discretionary cuts by $42 million and $106 million each year of the upcoming biennium while also eliminating funding teacher assistants in grades 2 and 3 and cutting funding for school administration and other non-teaching positions like guidance counselors, custodians, and clerical support.

Requiring additional discretionary cuts while also cutting funding for teaching assistants, administration and non-teaching positions, textbooks and supplies, and transportation will make it virtually impossible for local school districts to avoid cuts to teachers.  Making matters worse, many of the areas slated for new cuts have already been cut as part of local school districts’ discretionary cuts over the past two years.  Thus, school districts that cut teacher assistants in grades two and three in response to the required discretionary cuts will be forced to find new discretionary cuts.

Despite the tangled web of allotment formulas and discretionary cuts, the outcome of the budget recommendations is clear:  the House leadership will claim to have protected teachers and teacher assistants in early grades without raising revenue, but they’ll simply have pushed the hard decisions down to local officials to make the choice between eliminating teachers and teaching assistants or raising local taxes.