State budget compromise offers teacher raises but expands controversial private school voucher program

EducationA $22.34 billion budget compromise by GOP leaders in the N.C. General Assembly includes a nearly 5 percent raise for teachers, but also bundles in a laundry list of conservative wishlist items sure to rankle Democrats and public school advocates.

The plan, announced by state Senate and House lawmakers late Monday, includes an average 4.7 percent raise for teachers, lifting teacher pay with local supplements above $50,000.

The compromise pay raise lands a bit higher than leaders told Policy Watch they expected it to fall earlier this year, although it focuses more on mid- and late-career teachers, after pay raises in recent years focused on beginning educators.

Yet the budget’s policy provisions bill also includes a massive expansion of the controversial, private school voucher program, nixes a bipartisan-backed plan for reforming the state’s much-criticized system of grading school performance and loosens restrictions for North Carolina’s struggling virtual charter schools.

Under the compromise budget, the plan would expand the state’s controversial voucher program from $44.8 million in 2017-2018 to $134.8 million by 2026-2027, advancing a program much-criticized for offering public funds for low-income students to attend primarily religious schools with fewer accountability standards and, sometimes, discriminatory admissions policies.

One additional surprise in the final plan: It would lift a 35 percent cap on the dispersal of voucher funds to students in kindergarten and first-grade to 40 percent, a cap meant to limit state spending on students never enrolled in public schools who might have attended private schools regardless of the program.

The budget agreement would also do away with a House-backed overhaul of the state’s school performance grading system. Many critics say the score—80 percent of which is determined by testing performance, 20 percent by student growth—fails to properly factor in students’ progress at a school, but Senate leaders have long rebuffed calls for reforms.

The compromise would, however, allow the state to retain its 15-point grading tiers for the next three years, eschewing, at least temporarily, a more stringent, 10-point scale favored by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Policy Watch has reported extensively on the struggles of the state’s private-run, virtual charter schools to maintain student enrollment this year. The compromise budget released Monday includes several policy changes made to loosen regulations for the schools, including allowing virtual schools to exempt from their dropout count students who withdraw during their first 30 days in the program.

However, it drops an earlier push from GOP lawmakers to increase the allowed withdrawal rate from 25 to 35 percent.

The budget would also relax a requirement that 90 percent of teachers in the virtual program be North Carolina residents, lowering the threshold to 80 percent.

Virtual programs have been besieged by high dropout numbers and poor performance in states across the country, with one Stanford University study last year finding that virtual charter students trail their traditional school peers by as much as one full academic year.

House and Senate leaders are expected to vote on the budget plan in the coming days. It’s unclear how Gov. Pat McCrory will weigh in on the spending package.

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