Today is the first day of the 2015-16 school year in lots of places throughout North Carolina and editorial pages across the state this past weekend welcomed back the return of teachers and students with some harsh words for the political powers that be.

The Winston-Salem Journal minced no words in an editorial entitled “Teacher shortage: Legislature must end the brain drain”:

“North Carolina once concentrated on providing the best public education it could. But in the first years of the 21st century, Democratic leaders lagged in funding for education. The Republicans have been harder on it.

Some Republicans seem to have made a point of bad-mouthing teachers and the teaching profession. That doesn’t create an atmosphere in which they feel appreciated.

And the legislature has taken more concrete steps to diminish the teaching profession by eliminating the teaching fellows program and stipends for advanced degrees. Right now, as the legislature fumbles around with its budget, teacher assistants hang in limbo, not knowing if they’ll have jobs once the dust settles. Teachers had to take the state to court earlier this year just to retain tenure status.

And despite some movement toward raising salaries, our teachers continue to be underpaid for the important work they do.

Texas and other states have come to North Carolina to recruit new teachers, knowing they can offer better deals. And many teachers have accepted.

Who pays for this backward motion? The students, initially, and then our communities, which wind up with less-educated members and a less-educated workforce that fails to attract the jobs of the future.

Education is the best predictor of future success. If the legislature really wants to bring in new companies and jobs, it would recognize that instead of shortchanging our teachers, our students and our future.”

Here’s the Fayetteville Observer reminding us that the ideological driven move to rewrite the Common Core standards will be very expensive:

“The Academic Standards Review Commission has released some of its preliminary reports on how to revise teaching standards for math and English.

In addition to its curriculum recommendations, the commission added this: Once the revisions are made, the schools will need money for new teaching materials, including textbooks, and a sufficient number of teachers and teacher assistants to carry out the job.

The budget that lawmakers are negotiating doesn’t have that money in it. The Senate, in fact, wants to get rid of at least 8,500 teacher assistants and hire about 3,300 new teachers for lower grades.

We might indeed end up with better schools if the review commission’s advice is heeded. But we need to remember that the Common Core pushback was purely political, rooted in the canard that it’s a federal takeover of education. It’s not. The standards were developed by educators. And they are widely supported by business and the military. Can we really afford this exercise in the politics of education?”

And finally, the Wilmington Star News put it this way in a piece entitled “Let’s support our teachers”:

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“I feel like our kids are being held hostage by the General Assembly’s lack of a budget.”

That’s the word from Yancey County Schools’ superintendent Tony Tipton, who says that lawmakers’ failure to reach a deal on a two year state budget means students haven’t been able to learn how to drive over the summer.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times:

The other big wild card in school funding this year is whether the state will continue paying for driver’s education classes. The Senate budget would eliminate funding and the House would continue it.

That has left many WNC school officials reluctant to continue their driver’s ed programs past the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year June 30 for fear that they would have to pay all of the cost with local funds.

Some systems stopped classroom instruction but allowed students who had completed classwork to get in their time behind the wheel. Others just halted their programs altogether, said Lee Roy Ledford, head of a private company that employs 60 people providing driver’s ed instruction in nine WNC school systems.

“Probably half of our faculty or staff is sitting idle right now,” he said.

“I get calls every day from parents: ‘What about my kids’ driving?’ ” Tipton said. “I feel like our kids are being held hostage by the General Assembly’s lack of a budget.”

Both Jackson and Buncombe schools said they are looking at the prospect of charging $300 per student for driver’s ed if the Senate position prevails.

Teacher assistants are taking tough hits as well in Western NC.

The General Assembly has steadily cut funding for teacher assistants in recent years. Jackson schools at first were able to use local money to keep from laying off assistants, but eventually Murray said he decided, “That is a bleeding wound that I can’t keep let happen,” and had to make adjustments.

Assistants now don’t work when school is not in session. Many also work in school lunchrooms or drive buses to piece together enough hours to be full-time employees.

More than 60 percent of school funding in North Carolina comes from the state. WNC school officials say local sources of funds have already been stretched to fill in for previous state funding shortfalls.

Scared off by the prospect of potentially losing their jobs each year, many TAs have left their jobs voluntarily in Yancey County.

Keeping assistants has already become more difficult than it should be because the General Assembly seems to argue every year over how many to pay for, Tipton said.

“Over the last six years, some of ours have left and said it’s just too disheartening” to wonder each summer whether they will have a job when school begins, he said.

Read the full story on the effects of the NCGA’s budget stalemate here.


Gov. Pat McCrory at the NC Chamber’s 2015 Conference on Education

As House and Senate lawmakers continue to fight over whether or not to fully fund early grade classroom teacher assistants for the upcoming school year, Governor Pat McCrory told education advocates and members of the business community at a NC Chamber of Commerce conference on Thursday that he wants to get the entire debate out of Raleigh.

“What I refuse to do is to get into the debate on the state making the decision for each school,” McCrory said of the need for teacher assistants, which he believes should be in every first, second and third grade classroom.

“What I think we ought to do in the budget,” said McCrory, who added that he expressed his views strongly to legislative leadership Thursday morning, “is that I think we ought to give the same set amount of money with the necessary increases due to the increase in students in North Carolina and let the schools decide if you want [teacher] assistants, if you want more teachers, or if you want a combination of both.”

Senate and House lawmakers are staring down the sixth week of a budget stalemate, thanks in part to their inability to come to a decision on whether or not to fire 8,500+ TAs in order to reduce classroom sizes in the early grades. The Senate wants to cut TAs, while the House wants to keep them funded at last year’s levels.

Teacher assistants gathered in Raleigh Thursday morning to decry the possible cuts, according to WRAL.

With school starting in many areas within the next week or two, many local districts have begun laying off TAs or avoiding making new hires while lawmakers delay making final budget decisions.

Lawmakers have passed two temporary spending measures to keep government operations going while they negotiate a final budget, but the measures lack $25 million in teacher assistant funds that existed during the prior year, forcing some districts to make calls on staffing TAs before a final budget has even passed.

McCrory said Thursday that every school has different needs, and it should be up to the local superintendents and principals to decide whether or not they need teacher assistants.

“I want to give you [local districts] as much flexibility as possible,” said McCrory. “I want to provide enough money where if teacher assistants are needed, they can hire teacher assistants. If they don’t want the teacher assistants, then they can hire more teachers.”

Paul Stam 2

Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake)

Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake) told WPTF on Thursday that despite stalled budget talks that have kept the state waiting a month past the deadline for a deal that spells out how the government should run its schools and other agencies, North Carolinians should take heart — everything is running smoothly.

“Every other time I’ve been down here where there was a [budget] delay, they would fund the government you know at 80 or 90 percent of [the] last year,” Stam told WPTF radio host Patrick Johnson yesterday morning.

“This time it’s being funded at 100 percent plus of last year’s budget, so nothing is being shortchanged,” said Stam. “You know, pay raises will be — whatever they end up being — will be retroactive to July 1, but it’s not like the operation of government is being affected.”

Stam’s assessment of how the state is coping with operating under a stopgap measure while lawmakers do battle over a 2015-17 budget agreement doesn’t quite line up with what I’m hearing is happening on the ground.

Public schools are trying to figure out how to staff their schools in the face of potentially having to lay off more than 8,500 teacher assistants over the next two years—and they are still unsure of how much their staff will even earn this fall.

“We are getting ready to open our classroom doors. … And we don’t have a clue yet if we’re going to have to (lay off) 500 teacher assistants or try to hire almost 140 new teachers,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school board member Tim Morgan, a Republican, said at a recent meeting.

While a continuing resolution to keep government operations funded is in place through August 14, Rep. Larry Hall questioned chief budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) this week about whether or not teacher assistants are funded at the same level as last year until a budget deal is reached.

Dollar said to his knowledge, TAs were funded at the same level as last year. But when Hall asked legislative staff to weigh in, they said not quite—more than $20 million that funded TAs last year were non-recurring dollars, which means local districts didn’t get those funds to use while a continuing resolution is in place, putting more stress on their local budgets.

Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill offered a sharp rebuke to lawmakers at a public hearing on the budget convened Wednesday of this week by the House.

“Our students cannot wait for the various levels of government to conclude a budget negotiation,” said Merrill. “You’re currently debating whether to provide money that’s already been spent on tens of thousands of students. We simply can’t un-spend that money once negotiations end and the final budget is decided.”

Also at issue? Driver’s education. House lawmakers appeared this week to be unlikely to waver on their position of keeping driver’s ed fully funded, whereas the Senate is proposing to abandon funding driver’s ed altogether and eliminate the requirement for driver training in order to get a license.

The uncertainty around driver’s education has prompted some local school districts to cancel their summer driving schools—especially problematic in places where the bulk of driver training happens during the summer.

All indications point to lawmakers having to pass a second continuing resolution to keep government operations running past August 14.

“We’d all like to get out of here sooner rather than later, but I’m afraid it is gonna take a while,” Rep. Stam told WPTF, “just because there are so many disagreements.”


Rep. Gary Pendleton (R-Wake)
(photo from

In a meeting Wednesday where House lawmakers discussed key differences between the two chambers’ 2015-17 budget proposals, Rep. Gary Pendleton (R-Raleigh) said he was all for eliminating retiree medical benefits for future teachers and state employees.

“That’s something that should have been done a long time ago,” said Pendleton after legislative staff outlined the differences between salaries and benefits in the House and Senate budgets.

Senate lawmakers have included in their budget proposal eliminating retiree health care for teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016.

Proponents of the idea cite an unfunded liability of $25.5 billion associated with the retiree health fund and the need to find ways to reduce that cost. But opponents say cutting retiree health benefits will make it much harder to attract and retain good teachers and state employees.

[Click here and here for more background on the Senate’s proposal to eliminate retiree health care for future state employees and teachers]

Some of the other key differences between the House and Senate budget proposals discussed Wednesday largely revolved around education.

Driver’s education. House lawmakers appeared to be unlikely to waver on their position of keeping driver’s ed fully funded. The Senate is proposing to abandon funding it altogether and eliminate the requirement for driver training in order to get a license.

Chief budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary)  cited the Senate’s move as a “major concern” and Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston)  noted that during the last session, House lawmakers came up with a new funding mechanism for driver’s ed that didn’t include using highway fund dollars, which seemed to please everyone. Now, said Torbett, the Senate is abandoning driver’s ed altogether.

Dr. Bob Shackleford, president of Randolph Community College, said they don’t have the infrastructure or funds to take on providing driver’s education, as the Senate is suggesting.

Teacher assistants. Superintendents, a principal, teacher and TA all spoke out against the Senate’s plan to cut TA jobs by more than 8,500 over the next two years, explaining their critical role in making sure that young students, especially those with special needs, get one-on-one learning time in order to succeed.

The Senate proposes taking some of the money associated with the eliminated TA jobs and putting that toward reducing class size—a move that they say would produce better academic outcomes for students.

But Rep. Pendleton pointed out that there’s an additional cost associated with building out the classrooms and schools that would be needed to accommodate the additional small classes.

Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill said that cost would be significant—about $100 million to accommodate 145 new teachers, in accordance with the Senate’s budget.

For more key differences, check out comparison documents discussed yesterday that are located on the General Assembly’s website here.

Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham) interrupted budget discussions yesterday to ask the question that is on everyone’s mind: when is this thing [budget negotiations] gonna end?

“I don’t want to play Santa Claus here,” said Michaux. “You’ll be home for Christmas,” Dollar responded.