News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

N.C.’s compromise budget: Teacher pay raises, voucher boom, DPI cuts, school grading and more

North Carolina state lawmakers unveiled a compromise budget package Monday that bundles a new round of teacher pay raises amid steep cuts for the state’s top K-12 agency and support for school choice favorites like vouchers and education savings accounts.

The $23 billion spending plan is expected to move swiftly through the legislature. State senators are expected to hold the first of two votes on the budget deal Tuesday afternoon, while the House is expected to schedule votes later this week.

Some of the deal’s most controversial provisions are likely to emerge in its public education provisions, which include unpopular reforms to the school performance grading system and rapid expansion of the private school voucher program without the accountability requirements included in the House budget passed last month.

Here’s a round-up of the top public school components of the legislature’s budget deal:

  1. Teacher pay: Includes an average 3.3% raise in first year. In its inclusion of raises for most steps on the salary scale (with the biggest raises bound for teachers on steps 17-24), the plan is closer to the House salary schedule than the Senate’s proposal, which focused its raises on mid-career teachers. GOP budget writers say their goal is to reach average pay of $55,000 by 2020.
  2. Department of Public Instruction (DPI): The compromise plan softens the staggering, 25-percent budget cuts for the state’s K-12 bureaucracy included in the Senate budget, although it retains major reductions for an agency that focuses its intervention and training efforts on low-income and low-performing school districts. The new plan includes 6 percent reductions in the first year (about $3.2 million), followed by a 13.9 percent cut in the second year (about $7.29 million), all while adding 24 new reporting requirements for the agency. This does not include the budget’s plan to chop 11 positions in the agency, including three filled jobs, a loss of another $900,000 or so in funding.
  3. DPI audit: After years of allegations of wasteful spending in DPI, the budget includes $1 million for GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to commission an audit of the agency. Interestingly, the second year of the spending plan includes a $1 million DPI cut based on “anticipated savings” from that audit. The spending plan also includes $29 million in non-recurring funds over two years for a “modernization” of DPI financial accounting, a plan GOP lawmakers say will allow for increased transparency in the agency.
  4. School districts’ central offices: In keeping with the legislature’s clear skepticism of K-12 administrators, the budget includes a 7 percent cut to the state’s central office allotment for school districts in the first year, and an 11 percent cut in the second year, both a modest reduction from the Senate’s earlier proposal.
  5. Vouchers: As expected, the legislature retains a $10 million annual expansion of the so-called Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides public funds for low-income children to attend private schools. The program, which is slotted for $44.8 million in funding in 2017-2018, is a lightning rod for public school defenders, who point out private schools lack the same accountability and non-discrimination requirements of public schools. And, with a report this year suggesting the state’s voucher students are not being helped by enrollment in private schools, the final budget deal eschews House calls for an independent study of voucher student performance and the requirement that voucher students take one nationally standardized test for comparison purposes.  However, it allows for a task force to mull ways to evaluate voucher student performance, with a report expected next March.
  6. Personal education savings accounts: Labeled “vouchers on steroids” by critics, this program allows for the state to divert public funds to the private accounts of parents who seek to enroll their children in private schools. While it limits participation to parents of children with disabilities this year, it’s likely a first step in opening the door for greater access in the coming years, despite widespread questions about private school accountability and allegations of misspent cash in other states.
  7. School performance grades: The compromise deal nixes House proposals to reform a long-criticized method for assessing school performance. Advocates say student growth—rather than the school’s overall performance—should play a greater role in determining the score. Currently, the score is determined by 80 percent performance, 20 percent growth. A House proposal to establish separate grades did not survive conference committee negotiations. In addition, the deal announced this week also moves to a more stringent 10-point grading system in 2019-2020, rather than the 15-point scale preferred by advocates for school districts.
  8. Textbooks and classroom supplies: Amid myriad plans for boosting the state’s oft-criticized funding for classroom supplies, the conference committee emerged with a fairly conservative proposal, allocating about $11.2 million in a non-recurring boost to the allotment in the coming year. Critics say the state continues to fall far short of the necessary funding levels for this allocation, forcing teachers and school districts to spend to provide for updated classroom materials.
  9. Children with disabilities: One of the few bright spots of earlier budget proposals, according to some education advocates, the compromise increases the funding cap for children with disabilities, slotting another $6.3 million in recurring funds.
  10. Teaching Fellows: The plan, as expected, uses $6 million in cash from the state’s Education Endowment Fund to fund a new version of the teacher scholarship plan controversially scrapped by GOP lawmakers in 2011. The new version will focus on science, engineering, math, technology and special education, offering university scholarships for prospective teachers in exchange for a commitment to work in North Carolina. Lawmakers say they are hoping to address a well-documented drop in UNC students seeking teaching degrees in recent years.
  11. Superintendent’s office: With the state’s newly-elected GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson mired in a battle with the State Board of Education over the hiring powers of his office, state lawmakers are getting involved. The budget includes a House proposal to allocate $700,000 for Johnson to create up to 10 new positions that report solely to him. The proposal had earlier earned the rebuke of the GOP chairman of the state board, who says the positions and funding are needed for other roles in DPI.
  12. Governor’s School: The compromise deal bypasses a Senate proposal to ax state funding in 2018-2019 for the five-week, summer program, which focuses on academics and arts.
  13. Advanced teaching roles: The budget will spend an additional $7.1 million in non-recurring funds next year, bringing the total to $8.2 million, on a three-year pilot program aimed at offering incentives for so-called “teaching leaders” in school districts.
  14. Eastern N.C. STEM: The deal restores funding for a summer science, math and technology program that’s primarily served low-income, black youth in eastern parts of the state. GOP budget writers in the Senate stripped funding from the program in an early-morning cut that seemed a retaliatory strike against Democratic critics of the Republican budget. 

Keep checking back with Policy Watch for updates and feedback from top education advocates.

News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

With budget compromise pending, Governor’s School waits for news

In case you missed, The News & Observer provided a look this weekend into Governor’s School as it reopened for summer session in the midst of great uncertainty over its future. 

House and Senate lawmakers are expected to announce their state budget compromise Monday, and it remains to be seen whether a Senate proposal to chop $800,000 in state funding for the program will be included in the final spending package.

The House budget retains funding for Governor’s School, while Gov. Roy Cooper has asked the legislature to boost the allocation to $1.2 million.

The program, begun in 1963, offers five-week summer programs in Raleigh and Winston-Salem for top high school students, with a focus on critical thinking, academics and the arts.

As the paper notes, Governor’s School has become a target of GOP lawmakers in recent years.

From The N&O:

Karen and David Shore of Holly Springs dropped off their son, Carter, at Meredith on Sunday. Carter plays the French horn and said he wanted to attend the school after learning about a friend’s experiences last summer. He said he was excited to play with the “best from around North Carolina.”

Carter and his parents said he would learn more than just music while on campus. One class he’s taking deals with personal finance. His mother said she hopes the legislature takes a closer look at the program before making a final decision.

“I hope they realize how great it is for North Carolina students and what an investment it is,” Karen Shore said. “You have to spend now but it pays off later.”

Yet over the past eight years, the budget for the Governor’s School has either decreased or remained unchanged. In 2009, the school’s budget was cut from $1.3 million to $850,000. In 2011, the program nearly lost all funding before the General Assembly agreed to provide $800,000.

Laura Sam, Governor’s School East site director at Meredith, said because funding has remained static for years while North Carolina’s population has grown, the program cannot match demand. The Governor’s School enrolled 670 students for the summer, but Sam said it received 1,796 applicants this year and more than 1,700 the year before.

The program charges $500 in tuition to help make up for lower state funding. While it offers scholarships to those who might not be able to afford tuition, Sam said she knows some students might ignore the school once they see the cost.

“We have not failed, we have succeeded … but we are not fully funded,” she said.

The Senate plan to end state funding for the program would direct money to revive a different summer program, the Legislative School for Leadership and Public Service, and to a four-week science, math and engineering residential program run by the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.

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News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

Former DPI budget chief says N.C. school districts may have to “beg” again next year for class size funding

North Carolina school districts may have obtained something of a reprieve from state lawmakers’ controversial class size mandate this year, but the longtime budget chief for the state’s top public school agency says schools seem likely to face a similar crisis next spring.

“They’re going to have to come back again and beg next year,” says Philip Price, who retired in February after three decades in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), where he was a key leader in developing the state’s K-12 budget.

Price addressed a gathering of education reporters and policy advocates Monday as part of a seminar on the state’s class-size challenges convened by the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative.

State lawmakers reached a deal on the looming class-size crisis in April, as districts warned thousands of arts, music and P.E. teachers were at risk of losing their jobs without state action.

Legislators have ordered school districts to trim class sizes in K-3, with the stiffest reduction demands scheduled to take effect in 2018-2019. Policy Watch first reported on the issue last November.

On Monday, Price lobbed a few barbs at GOP budget writers, who complained multiple times this year that school districts have not been forthcoming in how they spend their state dollars.

“I have no idea why legislators are saying they can’t get reliable info,” said Price.

Price said lawmakers seemed “shocked and appalled” when school leaders explained this year that they would face major funding issues without state action, despite, he says, previous explanations of the looming issue by DPI officials.

“They didn’t like the department’s answers,” Price said. “They didn’t like their fiscal staff’s answers. They wanted a different answer.”

As Price explained Monday, the class size problem developed after state leaders acted in 1995 to do away with separate funding allotments for core classroom teachers and “specialty” teachers. Now, with state K-12 leaders lacking the necessary funding for public schools, districts have been forced to resort to “creative” means of maintaining school services, he said.

In some cases, that means transferring funds and relying on previously-granted class size flexibility in order to maintain arts and P.E. teachers not receiving their own funding allotment.

Without additional cash, districts say they would need to clear specialty positions in order to make room for more “core” subject teachers under the legislature’s class size plan. Along with the new teachers, districts would likely be forced to spend many millions to expand infrastructure to accommodate the new classrooms.

Wake County school board member Kathy Hartenstine

Wake County Board of Education member Kathy Hartenstine told reporters Monday the cost for Wake County Public School System (WCPSS)—the state’s largest public school district—would be “astronomical” next year.

The district would need to add more than 400 new teachers under next year’s class size directive, she said, in addition to the millions of dollars in spending needed to add classroom space.

“How in the world are we going to pay for these additional teachers?” Hartenstine said. “I worry about this. Am I going to have to be a board member who says we can’t have (specialty teachers) anymore?”

State lawmakers say they plan to use data gathered this year to assess districts’ needs for specialty teachers, with plans to mull a new funding allocation for the positions next year.

Rural and poor districts would face a different set of issues, considering their well-documented struggles in recruiting and retaining experienced teachers.

However, state lawmakers have offered no written promises on providing additional funding, despite warnings that districts may again be forced to consider laying off thousands of teaching positions next year.

Price said lawmakers should consider a new allotment for specialty teachers and boost the state’s overall spending for public schools, a longtime demand from K-12 advocates. This year, the state’s per-pupil spending dropped from 42nd to 43rd in a nonpartisan national ranking.

News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

State Board of Education blasts proposal for 25 percent cut to Department of Public Instruction

Members of North Carolina’s top school board on Thursday took aim at a controversial Senate budget proposal to slash funding to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) by 25 percent.

“I can’t imagine this for this department, which feels as if it’s doing so much more with so much less,” said board member Wayne McDevitt. “And now we’re being asked to do even more with even less.”

The Senate budget provision comes after more than $19 million in cuts to the state’s K-12 bureaucracy since 2009, with GOP lawmakers often attacking the public school agency as wasteful.

State officials say DPI performs myriad support tasks for North Carolina’s local school districts, although one of its key functions remains providing training and intervention in poor and low-performing districts.

The Senate spending plan approved last month includes a recurring $13.1 million cut to the agency’s budget, a reduction that the agency’s recently retired budget chief warned would “totally destroy” DPI’s operations capacity. The House budget unveiled last week skips the deep cuts. But it does authorize N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to commission an independent audit of the agency, including anticipated savings in the following year of $1 million.

Also of note: Both the House and Senate include varying cuts to central office administration in local school districts. The House budget report includes a $5 million recurring cut in 2017-2018, expanding the cut to $10 million in the second year of the biennial plan.

The Senate budget report, meanwhile, calls for a $10 million cut in the first year, and a $15 million cut in the second year.

Senate Republican leadership argued last month that their plan focuses on their spending priorities—including about $28 million in spending over two years on an upgrade to the department’s business system—rather than bureaucracy.

Johnson, a newly elected Republican, has not spoken out publicly about the GOP-controlled Senate’s proposals, although state Board Chairman Bill Cobey—also a Republican—has called on the legislature to reduce the funding cut for DPI.

Cobey reaffirmed that criticism Thursday, pointing out that, despite years of cuts, the House budget charges DPI with 21 new reporting requirements to the legislature. The Senate plan, meanwhile, includes 15 new reporting requirements, he said.

“The work keeps coming,” said Cobey. “And I’m all about efficiency, but there are limits to efficiency.”

McDevitt said Thursday that he hopes the department’s staff is expressing its opposition to the legislature.

“They need to hear in real terms the consequences of a 25 percent cut to DPI or a $10 million cut to the central offices, he said. “Eventually the support collapses. I know that sometimes we’re dealing with dollars but are we speaking out?”

Cecilia Holden, the state board’s legislative liaison, said staff has questioned the funding reduction, although she emphasized that her office is focusing on areas of agreement with lawmakers.

Members of the state House are expected to take a final vote on their nearly $23 billion budget plan Friday.

News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

Former DPI finance chief: Senate budget would “totally destroy” capacity at NC’s public school agency

The recently-retired finance chief of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction says a state Senate-approved $22.9 billion budget would cripple the agency’s ability to provide support and guidance for public school districts.

“The cut proposed in the Senate budget would totally destroy the ability of the (DPI) to deliver’s what’s legislatively required of them to do and also to support the school districts,” Philip Price, DPI’s former chief financial officer, told Policy Watch Monday. “It’s ridiculous to even comprehend how they would be able to manage it.”

Among its myriad controversial provisions, the state budget, which is likely to undergo a facelift in the N.C. House of Representatives, includes a whopping 25 percent cut in operations funding for DPI. That’s about a $13.1 million loss for each year of the biennial budget.

That’s on top of $15 million in cuts over the next two years for central office administration in the state’s school districts.

Senate Republican leadership pitched their spending package as a major investment in teacher pay and principal pay that focuses on outcomes rather than bureaucracy.

However, critics say the Senate’s sweeping cuts to the organization responsible for leading North Carolina’s public schools will severely hamper the agency’s ability to provide support in some of the state’s poorest districts, which are often low-performing.

Price agreed, pointing out larger districts with a deeper tax base are less likely to rely on DPI for professional development and outreach in low-performing schools.

Low-performing school intervention is a key function of the agency’s operations, although DPI also provides oversight and support in curriculum and finance, teacher training and more. The K-12 department’s emerged as a frequent target of GOP education reformers in the state legislature, especially in the state Senate.

“There is zero chance the department could effectively do the job they’re asked to do with that level of reduction,” Price added Monday.

Price retired in February after more than three decades at DPI, where he was integral in developing the state’s public schools budget.

Budget reductions are nothing new for the agency, which, since 2009, has weathered more than $19 million in legislative funding cuts and the loss of hundreds of positions, although K-12 leaders—including Price—agree this year’s GOP-proposed cutbacks would be particularly damaging, a point emphasized by State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey last week.

The DPI budget is just one of several areas of the Senate budget that’s spurred criticism from Democrats and public school advocates who note that—according to a new, nonpartisan report—North Carolina’s national ranking in per-pupil spending dropped to a lowly 43rd this year.

Opponents say the GOP plan’s proposal for about $1 billion in tax breaks for individuals and corporations will starve already underfunded departments such as DPI, although Senate Republicans said last week that they believe their budget plan invests “generously” in public schools while returning money to taxpayers.

“We understand that some want to spend more than this budget spends,” said Senate President Phil Berger, R-Guilford, Rockingham. “But memories can be short. We have not forgotten the mess we found in 2011, the result of years of spending growth at unsustainable levels and we feel strongly that when government collects more than it needs, some of that money should be returned to the taxpayers.”

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat who sits on the chamber’s education and budget committees, called the spending plan a “millionaire’s budget” Monday.

“They want to continue to under-fund and under-invest in public education,” said Chaudhuri. “That’s really the bottom line.”

Despite the potential loss of millions in K-12 funding, DPI’s chief administrator, newly-elected Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, has been quiet on the issue.

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