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Last night’s Moral Monday demonstrations took an unexpected turn when Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) decided to sit down with teachers, who were staked out in front of his office late last night, to debate some of the education policies he has put forward.

WUNC Education Reporter Dave Dewitt has a great story about how the night went off script and the debate that took place:

But here’s where script took an unexpected turn. Just a few seconds later, Senator Berger came around the corner, pulled some couches into a circle, and offered to have a discussion.

And that’s exactly what they did. For more than an hour and a half, Berger and the protesters discussed education policy and the challenges facing teachers. There were some heated moments, and some passionate disagreements.

For the most part, all parties were respectful. The protestors whittled their list to three items they wanted addressed: they wanted tenure back; they wanted teacher assistants restored; and they wanted Berger to hold a series of public meetings on education. At the end, Berger committed to nothing more than another conversation the next day to consider further meetings.

And instead of being led out in handcuffs, the 15 protesters walked out the front of the building, nodding to Capitol Police officers, to meet their supporters.

Proffitt spoke first: “So we sat down and we had a good conversation, which to my understanding this is the first time this has happened in the last couple of years. So I think this represents a win for the movement because I think we put enough pressure on them that they realized they had to have a conversation.”

When he was done, Bryan Proffitt stepped behind the crowd and tried to gather himself. Someone handed him a bottle of water and the sweater he thought he had lost, and he finally took a deep breath.

He admitted the night had not gone like he thought it would.

“Talk is cheap,” he said.” There needs to be a real opening. But if there’s an opening, we’ll take it. But if it means the threat of arrest, if that means risking arrest again, and putting negative pressure on them again, then we’ll be back.”

Click here to read or listen to DeWitt’s full story.

 

 

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Michael Cowin, Assistant Superintendent of Finance for Pitt County Schools, had some startling words for Pitt County School Board members last week, when he presented them with the Senate’s 2014 budget proposal for education.

“It appears that the Senate’s version of the budget proposes salary increases for teachers as a pawn in a political game that allows certain areas of education to be put on the chopping block.”

The Senate budget would cut 117 teacher assistants (TAs) from Pitt County schools, increase class sizes in second and third grades to eliminate 12 teaching positions, reduce the transportation budget by $300,000, and cut five school nurses from the district’s schools – an overall reduction of $5 million in state funding.

“It’s saying these areas aren’t needed,” said Cowin. “We need to promote to our legislative group the importance of teacher assistants in all areas, and not to be using such areas as leverage in a political game.”

Cowin also notes a key conflicting element contained in the Senate budget proposal – drastically cutting TAs while putting $300,000 into the Read to Achieve program, which relies on TAs to administer reading assessments that determine third graders’ reading proficiency.

Watch this cut of the video to see Cowin’s presentation and Board members’ reactions, who applauded Cowin for his courage to stand up and call out the Senate proposal as he saw it – a political game.

You can watch the entire Pitt County school board meeting from last week here.

NC Budget and Tax Center

This is the 6th post of a Budget and Tax Center blog series on public services and programs that face cuts in the budget process or have been underfunded in past years. See the other posts here.

If the Senate budget passes this year, rural communities are going to be living through a nightmare. Despite promises by the McCrory administration to support economic development in rural North Carolina, the budget passed by the state Senate last week continues long-term disinvestment in the very initiatives that rural communities need in order to create jobs and grow their local economies.

For most of the past 30 years, the state’s primary actor in promoting economic development in the state’s 85 rural counties was the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. Incorporated as a state-charted nonprofit in the late 1980s, the Rural Center used a mix of state funding and private fundraising to support a range of rural development work—everything from small town revitalization efforts and building rehabilitation grants, to small business lending and workforce training programs.

Over the past three years, however, the legislature has significantly reduced state investment in these important activities, undermining the state’s ability to promote job creation and economic revitalization in rural communities, many of which are still grappling with long-term decline in manufacturing. Even in the darkest period of the Great Recession in FY 2009, the state strongly supported these efforts by funding the Rural Center at $24 million. Unfortunately, the new legislative majority in 2011 significantly reduced support for rural development, cutting the Rural Center’s budget down to $16 million.

Then, in last year’s budget, the General Assembly eliminated all state funding for the Rural Center, instead opting to move some of these operations into a newly-created Division of Rural Economic Development in the N.C. Department of Commerce. As part of this move, the legislature reduced state funding for rural development even further, from $16 million in FY 2012-13 for the old Rural Center down to just $13.8 million in FY 2013-14 for the new Rural Development Division, of which $2.5 million was dedicated to a newly created Limited Resource Communities grant program intended to support economic development specifically in designated low-resource communities (e.g., the poorest 40 counties in the state). And the damage to rural development extends beyond the dollar reductions—the new division simply doesn’t carry out many of the specialized initiatives once conducted by the Rural Center: the state no longer supports small business lending in rural areas, targeted rural workforce development, or small town revitalization efforts.

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If you follow education news in North Carolina, there’s a lot to keep your eyes on this week.

The week kicks off with Moral Monday, which is focused on education. A pre-rally meeting begins at 3pm in the legislative auditorium of the General Assembly building, followed by a 4pm press conference. The actual rally takes place at 5pm on the Halifax Mall — follow #SchooltheNCGA on Twitter for live updates. I’ll be tweeting from there too — follow me @LindsayWagnerNC.

The House budget is expected to be released tomorrow, and possibly as soon as this evening. Tillis and other House GOP leaders will present their budget tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. in the press conference room of the Legislative Building (Room 1328).

Tillis’ comments at the state Republican convention this weekend suggested that he’s more comfortable with the Governor’s budget rather than the Senate’s, so we will see if teachers’ raises are a little lower than the Senate’s proposal, cuts to the rest of the education budget are fewer than the Senate’s, and the UNC system ends up taking that $49 million hit that McCrory suggested to pay for teachers’ raises. Look for stories from N.C. Policy Watch that will take a close look at the House’s budget proposal.

As the House considers whether or not to strip the state of second and third grade classroom TAs, the N&O published this story over the weekend about how Sen. Phil Berger’s justification for scaling TAs back comes from research out of Tennessee, which found that pupils in small classes of 13-17 students did better than those who were in larger classes of 22-25 students staffed with teacher assistants.

Last year, the General Assembly lifted the cap on classroom size and many elementary teachers grapple with classrooms filled with twenty students or more. The research didn’t look at the comparison between the academic outcomes of students in large classrooms with teacher assistants and in large classrooms with only one teacher and no help to manage the chaos.

The disclosure of salaries for public charter school employees was a hot topic last week that will be revisited again by the Senate education committee on Wednesday. At issue is whether or not charter school operators should have to disclose what they pay their teachers and other staff, even though the State Board of Education requires them to be subject to the N.C. Public Records law in their authorization process.

In an initial version of the bill, SB 793 sought to codify the State Board’s rule that charter schools be subject to the Public Records Act — but that language was stripped from a committee substitute bill last week. The Senate education committee will take it up for a vote on Wednesday at 10 a.m.

ICYMI: Last week the big story was Common Core, with the full House voting on a bill that would repeal the academic standards that North Carolina has spent millions of dollars to implement, while the Senate passed its own version of the bill that left a little more room for Common Core to stay in place — but comments from Sen. Jerry Tillman indicated he’d probably find a way to make sure that didn’t happen. Stay tuned to see how it all shakes out when the two houses duke it out in committee, some time in the next few weeks.

NC Budget and Tax Center

This is the third post of a Budget and Tax Center blog series on public services and programs that face cuts in the budget process or have been underfunded in past years. See the other posts here and here.

The Senate Budget proposal makes significant changes to North Carolina’s child care subsidy program, and not in a good way. In fact it kicks some families off the program. Essentially the Senate eliminates many of the best practices in child care subsidy policy, which results in making it more difficult for working families to access child care. The Child Care Subsidy program provides an opportunity for low-income working parents to access affordable and safe child care while they are supporting their family. As many parents know, child care is often the highest monthly expense for a family, with an average annual cost of full-time center care for one child at about $8,500 a year. The high cost of child care prices many low and middle income families out of the market, which could make it difficult for a parent to get and keep a job, or be forced to choose an unsafe care setting.

Enter the child care subsidy program, which currently provides families who earn less than 75% of the state median income (SMI; about 50,000 a year for a family of four) the opportunity to ensure a safe, quality child care setting for their children while they work. For some parents, the current system also provides a sliding scale for co-payments that decreases as the family size increases. While the program is extremely beneficial both in ensuring healthy early childhood development and allowing parents to work and sustain their family, the funding has been inadequate over the years, leaving over 15,000 eligible North Carolina families on a waiting list as of May, 2014, for months and even years. Read about Lex’s story from Western North Carolina whose children languished on the waiting list for over three years.

A magnifying glass is indeed needed to understand how the Senate budget changes the program because it claims to be revenue neutral and to reduce the number of children on the waiting list. So let’s take a look. The Senate changes eligibility for the program from 75% of the SMI to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four) for children ages 0-5 years. This means that to qualify to receive subsidies you have to earn less, even though families who earn up to 75% of the SMI still often can’t afford child care. The Senate further reduces eligibility for families with children ages 6-13 years to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level (about $32,000 for a family of four). The sliding scale is also eliminated, meaning that families with larger family sizes, and thus expenses, have to pay the same copay as families with smaller family sizes. Co-payments are also no longer reduced for partial day care. For some families, the changes in co-payment will price them out of the market, meaning parents could lose jobs or kids could go to unsafe care settings.

The Senate’s proposed changes to the child care subsidy program are just another example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. While they may keep the program revenue neutral, they’re kicking families out by changing eligibility and co-pay levels to do it. And the only way they’re reducing the waiting list is by eliminating those families on the waiting list who are eligible at the current levels that will no longer be eligible with a lower income eligibility threshold. They’re also decreasing state dollars by relying on more federal dollars available through block grants. It’s unclear what the associated impact will be to other block grant-funded programs. A better way forward would be to ensure that all North Carolina’s families who can’t afford care (which according to federal standards could be families earning up to 85% SMI) receive help to support their ability to work and their children’s ability to learn in the critical early years.