Read the Fine Print: Special Provisions

 

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.

 

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A study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management shows that English Language Learners (ELLs) who participated in full-day kindergarten were significantly less likely to be retained before 2nd grade.  The researchers went on to say say that “the results suggest that policymakers should focus on low-performing schools first when considering a change from half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten.”  North Carolina policymakers should take note as they consider significant cuts to both ELL and early-childhood programming.

 

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Eric Houk and Sheneka Williams, two of the very small handful of researchers cited in the Wake School Board’s response to the NAACP’s Title VI complaint to the Office of Civil Rights, wrote a letter to the News and Observer today protesting that  they were misinterpreted in the response.  The Wake School Board used comments made by the researchers to support the proposition the former socioeconomic integration policy was not sound educational policy.  The researchers felt strongly enough about the misinterpretation to respond publicly.  Their letter clarifies their position on the issue, stating that “our review of the literature on within-district resource allocation and student-level peer effects indicates that the existence of racially and socioeconomically isolated schools creates significant challenges for educators.”

This comes on the heels of a report yesterday which highlighted the misuse of busing statistics in the response.  The Board’s attorneys were forced to write a letter to the Office of Civil Rights to correct this error.

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A new report by the independent Center on Education Policy shows that both reading and math test scores rose for 8th graders in public schools across the nation from 2002-2009.  Most states saw gains in both subjects, and every single state saw gains in math.  As the assault on public schools by proponents of distracting and unproven market-based reforms escalates, it is important to look at the facts and understand that committing ourselves to the traditional public school system that educates over 90% of our children is the clear way to improve our nation’s future.

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An article in today’s News and Observer makes the spurious claim that “new data” shows Wake County School’s diversity policy harmed the education of minority students.  This claim is based on data claiming that black students with longer bus rides have lower rates of academic proficiency.  Of course, it should be no surprise that the data referred to is an attempt to support this claim since it was formulated for the Wake Board’s response to the NAACP’s Title VI complaint.

What is surprising is that the report does such a poor job of supporting this claim and any trends that can be discerned are far less clear than the article suggests.  As travel distances increased from <1 mile to 2.1-3 miles, academic proficiency increased from 53.1% to 57.3%.  Does this mean that 2.1-3 miles is the magical bus ride length that leads to greatest proficiency?  Students who were bused 10 miles had a 49.5% proficiency rate while students who were bused 7 miles had a 40% rate, so is 10 miles better for academic performance than 7?

Since poverty is linked to lower academic achievement, it is easy to see how students who were bused to different schools for socioeconomic integration could attain lower rates of academic achievement than their middle-class peers who were not.  The only thing this “new data” shows is that there was in fact a socioeconomic diversity policy and that poor students unfortunately often bore a disproportionate share of the traveling to make the policy work.  That’s not exactly breaking news.