Proposed House education budget cuts $27 million for reducing first-grade class sizes, reallocates most to literacy coaches

School-deskN.C. House leaders in a key budget committee gave their approval Thursday to a report on the chamber’s draft of the state education budget, a document that, overall, allocates an additional $12.9 million in K-12 spending, but, notably, also axes about $27 million intended to reduce first-grade class sizes by adding additional teachers.

The report presented Thursday does not address teacher pay. Committee Co-Chairman Rob Bryan, R-Meck., said that would be discussed at a later date by the chamber’s larger appropriations committee.

Meanwhile, legislative staff told lawmakers that the first-grade teacher funding was allocated last year during budget negotiations, and none of those positions have been filled yet. The cash was geared toward lowering the teacher-student ratio from 1 teacher per 17 students to 1 teacher per 16 students.

GOP lawmakers, responding to Democrats’ questioning about the draft budget, said the cut was somewhat offset by an additional $25 million allocation to hire literacy coaches to work in the bottom 20 percent of the lowest performing elementary schools in the state.

“It’s sort of a trade-off in my mind,” said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a four-term Republican from Burke County.

There were a handful of additional, key provisions in the budget proposal, including a revision to halve the amount of funding for Read to Achieve first- and second-grade reading camps, another amendment that lawmakers said was offset by literacy coach funding.

The budget would also include some significant policy changes, including revising the school performance grading system to weigh testing performance and student growth equally in the formula (see page 26 of the committee’s special provisions report here).

As we have reported at Policy Watch, the current scoring method—which weighs performance at 80 percent; student growth at 20 percent—has long been unpopular with education advocates who argue that it stigmatizes and punishes schools, administrators and teachers serving a low-income population.

Of course, such arguments have typically found much more stiff resistance on the Senate side of the legislature.

Additionally, the House budget would include one pivotal provision for the state’s fledgling virtual charter schools, battered by staggeringly high withdrawal rates in their opening months.

The current state law provides these online charter schools, which are run by for-profit operators, shall not have withdrawals rates exceeding 25 percent, a number that was already being pressed by the state’s two virtual charters in March.

A proposal in the House budget would raise that threshold to 35 percent (see page 18 of the committee report), also adding a provision that allows virtual charters to exclude from that count students who leave within their first 30 days after enrollment.

Virtual charters are popular with conservatives who say that it will serve students who otherwise would not attend traditional schools, but critics point to high withdrawal rates nationwide and data that indicate virtual charter students can, academically, lag far behind their peers in traditional schools. 

The committee’s budget report also includes $9.4 million to roll out a digital learning plan in the state, in addition to roughly $11.6 million for textbooks and digital learning materials.

Most political observers expect the Senate draft of the K-12 budget to include significant revisions as well.

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