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Education-budgetLate last night, lawmakers released a final budget deal brokered between the House and Senate that provides pay raises for teachers and a number of other education funding adjustments.

There’s a lot to process in the mammoth document, so let’s just get started with the basics on education, and I promise you — there will be more to come.

Teacher Pay

Lawmakers say they’ve provided an average 7 percent pay increase for teachers in this budget, but there’s widespread dispute over that figure since longevity pay has been wrapped up into the pay raises.

To see a side-by-side comparison of the old and new teacher pay schedules, click here.

Senator Phil Berger called the teacher pay raise the largest in North Carolina’s history, although the folks at ProgressNC fact-checked that claim and found it to be false.

Teacher Assistants

Lawmakers say TAs are “preserved” this year in the budget, but there are a few catches.

Lottery revenues will pay for a share of the funding for teacher assistants, and a portion of TAs will also be funded with non-recurring funds – meaning there will be another fight to keep them next year.

Also mentioned at Tuesday’s press conference– $65 million that was supposed to pay for TAs was moved back into funding for teacher positions. But local superintendents have the “flexibility” to move that money back over and save more TAs.

*However, that figure is not apparent in the budget’s money report. What we do know, however, is that in the certified 2014-15 budget, TAs were slated to cost $477,433,254 — but this latest budget spends $368.3 million.

Finally, while most state employees will get a $1,000 raise, TAs only get a $500 raise, along with public school custodial workers, cafeteria workers and other non-certified and central office personnel.

Higher Education

While lawmakers said on Tuesday they were able to preserve current funding levels for the university system, what actually is in place is a now slightly increased $76 million dollar cut that was in the original two-year budget passed in July 2013, but not in the most recent budget proposals.

This cut comes on top of years of cuts to the university system that have resulted in thousands of lost jobs and eliminated courses.

In 2011, the state’s universities had to cut $80 million, or 3.4 percent of its overall budget. Five hundred classes were eliminated, 3,000 jobs were cut and another 1,500 vacant jobs were eliminated. In the four years prior to 2011, state funding to the university system was slashed by $1.2 billion. Read More

At a Tuesday morning roundtable sponsored by Dell, Intel and the N.C. Business Committee for Education, Gov. Pat McCrory spoke to educators and business leaders who were gathered at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to strategize about ways to improve teacher effectiveness and next generation learning.

Using the opportunity to reiterate his education goals for the upcoming legislative session, which include paying all teachers more, McCrory hammered home his idea to create a “career pathway plan.”

“We want to ensure teachers have a career…and not a temporary stopover,” said McCrory, explaining that currently teachers have no way to move up in their profession unless they move into higher-paying administrative roles – a career move that not all practitioners are interested in making.

In addition to proposing a two percent average pay increase for all teachers and paying beginning teachers even more, McCrory proposed last week to create a long-term plan that would entice more teachers to stay in the profession by seeing salary increases that are linked to their work as teachers.

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In its final report to the General Assembly, the interim committee on digital learning called on lawmakers to initiate the shift from hardbound to digital textbooks and to implement other measures that will ensure North Carolina public schools are, in fact, providing students with a 21st century education.

In addition to the transition from bound books to e-books, the committee recommended the use of lottery funds for digital learning needs and the creation of a new “digital competency” standard that teachers and administrators would have to meet to get their credentials.

“We truly have set North Carolina on a new path forward into, as we say, the 21st century,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union and co-chair of the committee. “This is important work. It does not end here. All we’ve done is . . . (identify) the direction in which the ship should go at some point, so lots of work ahead.”

Like other interim education committees this week, the digital learning panel sidestepped the one or two issues destined to create controversy. In this case, the issue was virtual charter schools.

Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, pointedly noted the omission but there was no other discussion about the possibility of allowing virtual charters to become a part of North Carolina’s school choice landscape.

Criticized in other states for providing a lackluster form of education, virtual charters have met with resistance in North Carolina. A superior court judge effectively blocked an educational company called N.C. Learns from opening a virtual charter school earlier this year, a move supported by school boards across the state and the N.C. Justice Center.

“We hope,” said Katherine Joyce, assistant director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, that “the committee’s decision not to recommend authorizing a virtual charter school indicates an awareness of the concerns surrounding that proposal and all the unanswered questions that need investigation before the state moves in that direction.”

The state’s textbook warehouse, already rather empty due to budget cuts, could become even more vacuous if lawmakers follow through with a recommendation to substantially shift textbook funding from hardbound tomes to e-books.

The issue is likely to be discussed this week when the digital learning committee releases its recommendations for the upcoming legislative session. A draft of those recommendations calls for the General Assembly “to transition funding for textbooks to funding for digital textbooks and instructional resources.”

So far, the transition to online learning has taken place on a piecemeal basis both nationally and throughout the state. Maine, for example, has implemented a shift toward digital textbooks coupled with a policy that provides all seventh and eighth graders and half of the state’s high school students with a laptop.

In North Carolina, Mooresville Graded School District in Iredell County went completely digital 3 ½ years ago in grades four through 12, and the governor’s office recently recognized four high schools and six school systems — Mooresville, Cherokee, Rutherford, and Granville, among others — for their use of classroom technology and digital learning.

The legislative recommendation, however, could make digital learning a much more common practice in North Carolina – a practice that also raises concerns about the so-called digital divide.

While 81 percent of the state’s households have a computer and 80 percent have access to the Internet, there is a large discrepancy between the haves and have-nots.

According to a 2011 NC Broadband report, only 52 percent of households with an annual income under $15,000 have a computer, and 50 percent have access to the Internet. Among those earning $15,000 to $24,999 a year, 62 percent have a computer and 62 percent have Internet access.

Our story about budget cuts is on the NC Policy Watch main page. To accompany that piece, here is a Q&A with Philip Price, chief financial officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Policy Watch: With three years of budget cuts now amounting to nearly $700 million, what has been the impact on schools throughout the state?

Price: They’ve been challenged. They have to come up with ways of addressing the large negative reserve that’s in place. They’ve had to increase class sizes. Initially there was a significant reduction in support personnel, your clerical (positions) and custodians and, for that matter, teacher assistants. In other words, your non-certified personnel. In the first couple of years, the cuts were predominantly in those areas, and then as the cuts continued, they had to move beyond those particular areas and start hitting into the instructional personnel…. So they’ve been challenged, and they’ve had to deal with those challenges by making some tough decision at the local level.

At least 45 percent of the budget is associated with classroom teachers, that’s why it such a large percentage to have to consider. If I told you to cut your budget and 50 percent of your household budget is food, you’d probably have a difficult time coming up with reductions without touching your food budget. Read More