Commentary

Lowlights of General Assembly’s education budget proposals

The General Assembly’s Conference Committee budget proposal (special provisions can be found here; changes to funding can be found here) contains a number of education proposals that are worth highlighting:

  • Opportunity Scholarship voucher program:  The conference proposal combines the changes that were included in both the House and Senate versions of the budget.  That is, the proposal includes the House policy of expanding the number of new scholarships that can be awarded to students in grades K-1, thereby increasing the number of scholarships that will be awarded to students who would have gone to a private school even if they had not received a voucher.  The conference proposal also incorporates the Senate plan to increase voucher funding to $145 million per year, parking unused funds in a reserve fund.  Combined, these proposals are likely to cost the State approximately $175 million over the next five years.
  • Sets up crippling class size restrictions for the FY 17-18:  The General Assembly provides school districts with teachers in grades K-3 according to set student-to-teacher allotment ratios.  For example, school districts receive one teacher for every 18 students in kindergarten.  Historically, a school district’s average class sizes across the district have been allowed to exceed the allotted ratio by 3 students. This allows LEAs to use State funding for supplemental teachers such as art, music, and gym teachers. Under the 2016 budget, LEAs would lose this flexibility beginning in FY 17-18.  The move will have a devastating effect on districts across the state, particularly low-wealth districts with limited capacity to hire additional teachers from local revenues.
  • Fails to restore funding to prior levels:  The 2016 budget fails to restore several items to pre-recession levels.  Compared to FY 08-09, North Carolina’s schools will have approximately 3,700 fewer State-funded teachers (4,800, if you account for student growth), $143 million less in teacher assistant funding, $41 million less in instructional supplies, $29 million less for textbooks, $39 million less for noninstructional support (janitors, clerical, substitutes, etc.), and $12 million less for professional development.

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News

State budget compromise offers teacher raises but expands controversial private school voucher program

EducationA $22.34 billion budget compromise by GOP leaders in the N.C. General Assembly includes a nearly 5 percent raise for teachers, but also bundles in a laundry list of conservative wishlist items sure to rankle Democrats and public school advocates.

The plan, announced by state Senate and House lawmakers late Monday, includes an average 4.7 percent raise for teachers, lifting teacher pay with local supplements above $50,000.

The compromise pay raise lands a bit higher than leaders told Policy Watch they expected it to fall earlier this year, although it focuses more on mid- and late-career teachers, after pay raises in recent years focused on beginning educators.

Yet the budget’s policy provisions bill also includes a massive expansion of the controversial, private school voucher program, nixes a bipartisan-backed plan for reforming the state’s much-criticized system of grading school performance and loosens restrictions for North Carolina’s struggling virtual charter schools.

Under the compromise budget, the plan would expand the state’s controversial voucher program from $44.8 million in 2017-2018 to $134.8 million by 2026-2027, advancing a program much-criticized for offering public funds for low-income students to attend primarily religious schools with fewer accountability standards and, sometimes, discriminatory admissions policies.

One additional surprise in the final plan: It would lift a 35 percent cap on the dispersal of voucher funds to students in kindergarten and first-grade to 40 percent, a cap meant to limit state spending on students never enrolled in public schools who might have attended private schools regardless of the program.

The budget agreement would also do away with a House-backed overhaul of the state’s school performance grading system. Many critics say the score—80 percent of which is determined by testing performance, 20 percent by student growth—fails to properly factor in students’ progress at a school, but Senate leaders have long rebuffed calls for reforms.

The compromise would, however, allow the state to retain its 15-point grading tiers for the next three years, eschewing, at least temporarily, a more stringent, 10-point scale favored by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Policy Watch has reported extensively on the struggles of the state’s private-run, virtual charter schools to maintain student enrollment this year. The compromise budget released Monday includes several policy changes made to loosen regulations for the schools, including allowing virtual schools to exempt from their dropout count students who withdraw during their first 30 days in the program.

However, it drops an earlier push from GOP lawmakers to increase the allowed withdrawal rate from 25 to 35 percent.

The budget would also relax a requirement that 90 percent of teachers in the virtual program be North Carolina residents, lowering the threshold to 80 percent.

Virtual programs have been besieged by high dropout numbers and poor performance in states across the country, with one Stanford University study last year finding that virtual charter students trail their traditional school peers by as much as one full academic year.

House and Senate leaders are expected to vote on the budget plan in the coming days. It’s unclear how Gov. Pat McCrory will weigh in on the spending package.

2017 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center

Follow the Money: How the joint budget is funded

Last night, the House and Senate held a press conference, and they subsequently released their joint budget agreement, which will be voted on over the next week or so in both chambers.

The final budget holds to the rigid formula of population plus inflation, spending only $22.3 billion to operate core public services, as well as meet the needs of a growing state population undergoing significant demographic shifts and the persistent challenges in ensuring that every community has access to opportunity. This spending level is a mere 2.8 percent above spending for the current fiscal years and does not reflect the actual needs of North Carolina. Opportunity exists to invest in North Carolina to meet those challenges and pursue every opportunity for greater success and well-being; however, policymakers have instead chosen to reduce the state’s collective commitment bringing state spending to 4.14 percent relative to the size of the economy, well below the historic average of 6 percent.

Lawmakers are relying on a largely disproven theory that cutting public spending and reducing taxes for the wealthy and profitable corporations will deliver improved economic outcomes for all North Carolinians. Some point to the state’s apparent recovery, which mimics the overall national recovery, but lawmakers have failed to address the fact that wages aren’t recovering for everyday North Carolinians, there aren’t jobs for everyone who wants to work in the majority of North Carolina counties, and there is persistently high poverty in urban and rural communities alike.

Our leaders’ loyalty to severe budget constraint and lopsided tax cuts, which primarily benefit profitable corporations and the wealthy, are making it impossible for them to meet the needs of communities and families across the state. And as research and prior experience shows, this tax-cut, disinvestment approach will not deliver the economic gains they promise. It diminishes the ability of the state to pursue the investments that do deliver returns to the broader economy: preparing every child for kindergarten, increasing post-secondary attainment of the workforce, and targeting investments in main streets and small business development in struggling areas, for example.

While most of the public budget debate this week will be on the spending side (see our initial take here), examining how the North Carolina General Assembly plans to pay for their proposal is just as important. They pay for their 2017 budget proposal in the following way: Read more

News

N.C. Senate one vote away from approving charter takeover of low-performing schools

Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, is a chief supporter of the bill.

Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, is a chief supporter of the bill.

North Carolina Senate lawmakers have moved one vote away from approving a controversial bill clearing the way for a charter takeover of a handful of low-performing schools.

House Bill 1080, the product of long negotiations over the fate of some of the state’s most chronically under-performing schools, is due for one final vote in the Senate today, before it returns to the House for a concurring vote. Afterwards, it would be forwarded to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office. The governor is expected to sign the bill.

The legislation will create a so-called, statewide “achievement school district” for five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, paving the way for state leaders to turn over management and staffing powers in the schools to for-profit charter operators.

In the House, the bill was predominantly led by Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte-area Republican, but Policy Watch has reported that the legislation was backed by an Oregon businessman who runs a national charter network, which includes 10 schools in North Carolina. It was also pushed by an Oklahoma-based, conservative group with ties to ALEC.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, the Wake County Republican who is its most outspoken supporter in the Senate, called it an “innovative” solution for long-time struggling schools in a lengthy debate on the Senate floor Monday night.

But the bill was widely criticized by many Democrats and public school advocates, who argue that the method, which was met with lackluster results in other states like Tennessee, is an unproven technique for addressing struggling schools.

Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat representing several counties in eastern North Carolina, blasted supporters of the bill Monday, claiming they were trying to “line the pockets” of private operators lobbying for the legislation.

“You’re sending in, against their will, private companies to take over their schools,” Bryant said.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, said that while she supports intervention for low-performing schools, she does not back “outside” charter groups performing the work.

“Were our public schools given the same kind of support and flexibility (as charter schools), they would be able to do some of the same things,” said Robinson.

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Commentary

Last minute attacks on civil liberties advance at General Assembly

We must be getting close to the end of the 2016 legislative session because, as has become an annual phenomenon, state lawmakers are doing the worst to rush through bills that would undermine civil liberties. A pair of statements released late yesterday by the folks at the ACLU of North Carolina explain, respectively, the latest attacks on immigrants and government transparency in police practices.

Statement #1 on the Senate’s anti-immigrant bill:

Today the North Carolina Senate voted to approve HB 100, a bill that creates new rules for the enforcement of state immigration laws. Senator Mike Woodard objected to the bill on its third reading, meaning that the Senate must vote one more time before the bill is sent to the House.

Specifically, the bill would

  • Take away the ability of law enforcement officers to use local or organizations IDs, such as those used in Greensboro, as a tool for for identifying crime victims, witnesses, and suspects
  • Empower the Attorney General’s office to determine if a local government is in violation of state immigration laws and potentially cut off funding to school construction and other infrastructure projects if a jurisdiction is found in violation
  • Allow anonymous tipsters to claim that a local government is violating immigration laws, compelling the Attorney General’s office to dedicate resources to an investigation.

Immigrant rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina, are opposed to the bill.

“This bill creates a costly, burdensome and unnecessary framework for enforcing immigration laws that would make it harder for law enforcement officers to do their jobs, encourage fraudulent tipsters to waste government resources, and give the Attorney General sweeping powers to withhold funding from school construction and other infrastructure projects,” said Sarah Preston, Policy Director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “These changes would allow massive government overreach and waste precious taxpayer dollars – all in an attempt to target and single out undocumented North Carolinians who work, go to school, and contribute to our communities in countless ways.”

Read a fact sheet on HB100 by the ACLU of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center here: http://www.acluofnc.org/files/legislative/HB_100_factsheet.pdf

Statement #2 on House legislation to keep police body camera footage secret:

A bill that would allow law enforcement agencies to shield officer worn body camera footage from public view unless ordered to release the footage by a court was approved by the North Carolina House tonight.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina, which has advised many local law enforcement agencies on their body camera policies, opposes HB 972.  Read more