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In response to a recent order stemming from a 20+ year old court case that requires all North Carolinian children to have access to a sound basic education, the State Board of Education submitted a plan with the court last week to address how it will ensure all students succeed academically — and that proposal includes the establishment of an interagency advisory committee tasked with seeking solutions to educating at-risk students.

From the News & Observer:

In its court filing, the State Board of Education proposed establishing an Interagency Advisory Committee on Public Education to discuss the challenges at-risk students face. A hearing on the Board’s plan, part of the lawsuit called Leandro, is scheduled for July 21-23 before Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.

For years, Manning has criticized persistently low-performing schools and districts. Much of the Board’s response is a catalog of existing teacher preparation and evaluation efforts and classroom practices.

According to the State Board’s filing with the court, the committee would comprise “representatives from key child-focused entities, such as: state agencies (DPI, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Public Safety – Juvenile Justice, etc.); local boards of education; local mental health organizations; private non-profits, including representatives from the charter school community; community colleges, universities and others.”

Those stakeholders would come together to review the challenges at-risk youth face that relate to poverty, health and safety and develop recommendations for the State Board of Education as well as other agencies in an effort to improve educational access.

In their 54-page plan, the State Board highlights the successes they’ve had in supporting low performing schools since the original 1997 Leandro ruling, emphasizing existing teacher preparation and evaluation programs as well as other classroom supports as a way forward in meeting their constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to all students.

But, according to the News & Observer, many of those school improvement efforts have largely been funded with federal Race to the Top funds, which are scheduled to dry up this year. While the House has included some funds to fill in the gap in its 2015-17 budget proposal, the Senate puts the onus on local school districts in its budget to fund those programs going forward.

With the establishment of an interagency advisory committee, the State Board emphasizes that the academic success of all students cannot be accomplished by public schools alone, and that the obligation rests with every state agency as well as the public at large.

Judge Manning will review the State Board’s plan at a hearing scheduled for July 21-23.

Read the State Board’s plan here: The Mandate To Provide An Opportunity For A Sound Basic Education, An Update and Recommendation.

News

“They’ve already taken away longevity pay, master’s degree pay, and tenure…and now they’re taking away retirement health insurance,” said North Carolina Association of Educators’ vice president Mark Jewell on Monday.

“The General Assembly is saying to educators thinking of working in North Carolina: please look somewhere else. We don’t want long-term educators in our state,” said Jewell.

Senate lawmakers buried deep in their budget proposal earlier this month a provision that would end health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016. [Click here for the full story.]

NCAE’s Jewell is concerned about the provision’s implications when it comes to recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

“Under this provision—if it becomes law—teachers would have to work much later, until they can receive Medicare benefits,” said Jewell. “Or they would have to take another job once they retire to get some kind of health insurance benefit until they qualify for Medicare.”

“We have a lot of teachers retiring coupled with a large decrease in participation in teacher education programs at the university system — enrollments have fallen 27 percent since 2010,” Jewell added. “So it looks like we have a big teacher shortage ahead.”

As the cost of college soars, students are reaching a tipping point when it comes to how much debt they’re willing to take on in order to enter the teaching profession, according to NC State University’s assistant dean for teacher education, Michael Maher.

“We have students who are graduating with degrees in math and engineering making $70,000,” said Maher. “So there becomes this issue of debt load—students say ‘only if I am going to make a good salary can I take on more debt.'”

Maher, who was a high school teacher during the mid-1990s, said the teaching profession was once an attractive prospect thanks to the overall benefits package that teachers were once guaranteed.

“I thought it was great,” said Maher of teaching. “I had access to the state’s retirement system and a guarantee of good health benefits upon retirement. Now out of pocket expenses are increasing, premiums are rising, and salaries are not going up, and now this…so what’s the advantage now?”

Maher noted that the Senate’s proposal to slash health retirement benefits affects UNC faculty, too, making it difficult to retain top notch professors were the provision to become law.

Tacey Miller, a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who graduated earlier this year and just secured a job as a third grade teacher in Onslow County, said she continues to be surprised by the General Assembly’s actions.

“So much has happened with the education system in North Carolina that nothing should surprise me anymore,” said Miller. “But something like [eliminating health retirement benefits] comes out in the news and I just think, why? Where are they redistributing this money, then? Even if they reduce class sizes, you still need actual classrooms to teach the kids.”

“It just seems like we’re making it harder for people to be teachers,” said Miller.

The House and Senate are expected to spend the rest of the summer—and possibly part of the fall—hammering out a final 2015-17 budget deal—stay tuned to see if the elimination of health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.

News

Colorado’s Supreme Court struck down school vouchers on Monday, finding that they violate the state’s constitution because they send public dollars to private, religious institutions.

“Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever . . . .”

“This stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear: A school district may not aid religious schools. Yet aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP [school voucher program] does,” reads the court’s opinion, announced by Chief Justice Nance E. Rice.

Read the entire Colorado Supreme Court ruling here.

Colorado’s voucher program was only operational in the Douglas County school district, the state’s third largest—but Monday’s Supreme Court ruling has implications for school districts across Colorado, according to The Washington Post.

North Carolina’s own statewide school voucher program—known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program—is on pause pending a ruling from the state Supreme Court, which could come any day.

At issue? Whether or not the Opportunity Scholarship Program violates North Carolina’s constitution—which, similar to Colorado’s, says that taxpayer dollars should be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

Click here for the latest on school vouchers in North Carolina.

NC Budget and Tax Center

With lawmakers set to hammer out a final state budget, North Carolinians are hearing a lot of misleading claims about the inability to afford important investments in the state’s economic future. Unmentioned is that the state’s constrained finances – at a time when the economy is improving – stem from the decision to sharply cut taxes over the past three years instead of building a strong foundation for lasting growth.

So when policymakers say that making investments in one area of the budget limit the ability to invest in other areas, they are right in lamenting limited resources. But they are offering false choices because they leave out the fact that the limits on resources available to help North Carolinians build a secure future come from House and Senate leadership prioritizing tax cuts over investments that drive the economy forward. And these constraints are likely to continue far into the future because the proposed House and Senate budgets include tax cuts that cost anywhere from $650 million to $1 billion over the next two years, depending on which version of the budget the two houses eventually agree to enact.

By locking themselves into these false choices legislators fail to acknowledge that halting further tax cuts would help ensure that schools have the resources they need and that important supports are available to promote healthy and safe communities.

Let’s sort out some of these false choices and shed light on how different it could be if the state had taken the common-sense path of avoiding such damaging tax cuts.

  • Classroom Teachers vs. Teachers Assistants. Today, our schools have nearly 4,800 fewer classroom teacher positions and more than 7,000 fewer state-funded teachers’ assistants than in 2009, which is especially bad considering there are 43,000 more students in our schools. The Senate budget drastically reduces funding for teachers’ assistants and provides some additional funding for classroom teachers. But neither the House nor Senate budget would restore the number of teachers and assistants to the 2009 level. Without tax cuts, North Carolina could invest in teachers and teachers’ assistants, providing the next generation a better shot at getting the skills to compete in a global economy.

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News

The News & Observer reports that when faced with questions about why the Senate included a provision in its budget proposal that would end retirement health care for future teachers and state employees, some Senate leaders wouldn’t talk.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, who chairs the Pensions, Retirement and Aging Committee, said he couldn’t comment on the proposal because it came from the Senate’s top budget writers – not his committee. And Sen. Harry Brown, one of the chamber’s lead budget writers, walked away from a reporter without speaking when asked about the change.

Calls from N.C. Policy Watch to Senators Brown and Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) also went unanswered as we worked on a story last week highlighting the budget provision, which would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016.

Senator Phil Berger’s office did talk to the N&O, however.

“North Carolina has a massive $26 billion unfunded liability for retiree medical coverage, and the Senate budget is a prudent way to address the long-term viability of the State Health Plan,” said Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger.

Chuck Stone, lobbyist for the State Employees Association of NC (SEANC), told the N&O (as well as Policy Watch) that the Senate’s plan isn’t the way to go.

“Once you take [the health retirement benefit] away, what incentive is there to work for the state?” said Stone. “We are in a rush to have the worst State Health Plan coverage in the United States of America.”

Check out Chris Fitzsimon’s column on the Senate’s plan to end health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees published this morning.