Commentary

The hidden budget provision to kill sex ed in North Carolina

Anyone who has spent much time around the General Assembly is familiar with Alan Hoyle, even if they might not know the name. Hoyle is a Lincolnton, NC street preacher. But around Raleigh, he’s most notable for circling the General Assembly in his red truck adorned with anti-gay messaging, Bible verses, and graphic images of aborted fetuses. He’s a religious extremist and bigot. Yet a special provision tucked away in the House budget would give Alan Hoyle the authority to dictate what our schools are teaching.

Section 7.22 of the House Budget proposal is titled “Modernize Selection of Instructional Materials,” but if this provision were to become law it would return us to the stone age.

Under current law, the state is responsible for identifying textbooks that align with North Carolina’s Standard Course of Study. The state then uses its substantial purchasing power to negotiate best-in-the-nation pricing, ensuring that no schools anywhere in the country receive books for a lower price than North Carolina. Local school boards have the authority to purchase books via the state contract, purchase other instructional materials, and hear complaints from parents, teachers, and members of the community.

The House is proposing to upend this system. The efficient, statewide program for reviewing, selecting, and purchasing textbooks would be replaced with 115 district-level efforts for reviewing, selecting, and purchasing. Of course, these are the same districts whose funding has been slashed nearly 40 percent over the past decade. Many districts lack the time and expertise to carry out such detailed evaluations. The House proposal would not provide any additional funding for taking on this new responsibility.

The unfunded local burden would be greater when it comes to sex ed, or “health and safety programs.” When selecting instructional materials for these classes, local boards would be forced to conduct public hearings. They would also be required to maintain a centrally-located physical repository of all instructional materials that have been adopted or – in the case of sex ed – are even up for consideration to be adopted. District personnel would have to allow any member of the public to visit the repository to review these materials in person upon their request.

Of course, unfunded mandates that dissolve responsibilities onto local governments are simply par for the course under this General Assembly.

The real issue is how this law would allow Alan Hoyle and other fringe zealots to effectively veto any instructional materials that fail to align with their unique world view. Read more

Commentary, Education

NCGA budget proposals are a slap in the face to educators

On May 1, thousands of educators and public education advocates flooded the streets of Raleigh to demand additional resources for North Carolina’s public schools. Organizers from the North Carolina Association of Educators outlined five policy priorities:

  1. Provide enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals to meet national standards.
  2. Provide $15 minimum wage for all school personnel, 5% raise for all public school personnel, and a 5% cost of living adjustment for retirees.
  3. Expand Medicaid to improve the health of our students and families.
  4. Reinstate state retiree health benefits eliminated by the General Assembly in 2017.
  5. Restore advanced degree compensation stripped by the General Assembly in 2013.

Now that the House and Senate budget proposals have been released, it’s clear that General Assembly leaders failed to listen.

As can be seen, the General Assembly proposals fail to reach consensus on any of the policy priorities of the May 1 participants:

  • School support staff: Both proposals make just incremental progress towards filling North Carolina’s shortfall of librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals.
  • Educator compensation: Neither proposal includes extending the $15 minimum wage for state employees to the lowest-paid public school employees. Nor does either proposal provide a 5 percent pay increase in year one for educators. And neither budget includes a permanent COLA for retirees.
  • Medicaid expansion: Neither the House nor the Senate proposals include Medicaid expansion, leaving 500,000 North Carolinians in the coverage gap, harming stability and coverage for countless families.
  • Restore retiree health benefits for new hires: Neither proposal restores retiree health benefits for new hires after January 1, 2021, which will hamper teacher recruitment after that time.
  • Restore master’s supplement for those who started programs after August 1, 2013: The House budget includes restoration of the master’s salary supplement, returning to the policy in place prior to the 2013 repeal. The Senate proposal would not restore the master’s salary supplement.

These budget proposals are a slap in the face those who came out on May 1, filling the streets of Raleigh to demand more adequate support for our schools. Clearly, legislative leaders weren’t happy with teachers’ decision to organize massive rallies in each of the past two years. But unless the General Assembly reverses course and starts listening to the state’s educators, teacher actions are likely to become more frequent and more disruptive in future years. Teachers are clearly fed up with not being provided the resources necessary to help their children succeed. This year’s budget proposals are only going to stoke that fire.

Commentary, Education

Senate education budget is a dereliction of duty

For years, North Carolina’s public schools were a signature point of pride for the state. But a decade of austerity, neglect, and misguided policy has left our system with several challenges that require immediate intervention:

Anyone who cares about children, justice, and the future of our state would be taking drastic action to reverse these trends. Unfortunately, concern for children, justice, and the future of our state is in short supply within the General Assembly.

Much like the House budget unveiled earlier this month, the newly-released Senate budget makes no serious effort to address the problems faced by North Carolina’s public schools. It fails to make any serious efforts to provide additional supports for students or schools with greater needs. Without a better budget, schools will remain unequipped to meet students’ basic needs, let alone tear down the barriers created by poverty and discrimination.

So what does the Senate budget propose to do?

  • It adds 115 school psychologist positions. This additional investment is certainly welcome, but at $8.7 million, hardly puts a dent in the $655 million needed to meet industry standards for instructional support staffing.
  • It increases classroom supplies funding by $15 million, which would still leave supplies funding 42 percent below pre-Recession levels. Moreover, the Senate would mandate that districts transfer almost half of their supplies funding for teachers to spend via the ClassWallet app. The app will limit districts’ abilities to make strategic, bulk purchases, and the ClassWallet app has been criticized by teachers for increasing the costs of buying supplies.
  • It gives teachers a paltry 1.7 percent raise that’s unlikely to keep up with inflation.
  • It gives janitors, teacher assistants, bus drivers, and child nutrition staff an even more insulting raise of just 1 percent after these employees were excluded from last year’s $15 minimum wage for state employees.
  • It places even more armed law enforcement officers in middle and elementary schools even though a recent study found that they fail to improve school safety in middle schools.
  • It spends $3 million so that students who qualify for reduced-price lunches would receive their lunches for free. Unfortunately, funding for this laudable initiative would be cut after the first year.
  • It eliminates school districts’ ability to sue their local county commissioners over lack of capital funding.

Here’s what the Senate budget doesn’t do:

  • Fix a biased school report card grading system that is scheduled to increase the number of “F” schools from 87 to 839.
  • Restore per-student funding to pre-Recession levels.
  • Account for the 782 fewer teachers than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system.
  • Account for the 626 fewer instructional support personnel than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system (even after accounting for the additional 115 school nurses provided under the Senate proposal).
  • Account for the 8,430 fewer teacher assistants than were provided under the pre-Recession funding system.

Meeting these pre-Recession funding levels is an incredibly low standard to hold legislators to. Prior to the Recession, North Carolina ranked 42nd in terms of school funding effort – the amount of school spending as a share of our economy (GDP). In 2009, Education Week gave North Carolina an “F” for level of school funding. Since then, things have only gotten worse, consigning an entire generation of North Carolina students to a full 12 years of school under austerity conditions.

If legislative leaders actually wanted to address schools’ needs, they could. Tax cuts since 2013 now drain $3.6 billion per year from state coffers, largely to the benefit of corporations and the wealthy. The Senate budget proposes a further windfall to corporations by reducing franchise taxes by $108 million in year FY 19-20, rising to $255 million in FY 20-21. And the budget writers leave another $1 billion unspent over the biennium. We could afford to do good things if legislative leaders wanted to do good things.

It’s a moral outrage that our school system offers a Black boy in Halifax County a starkly lower chance for success than a white boy who had the luck to be born in Chapel Hill. A budget like the Senate’s – that does nothing to upset this status quo – is unacceptable.

Commentary, Education

News & Observer “fact check” on senator’s school voucher claim tells only half the story

A recent News and Observer “fact check” weighed into the North Carolina Senate’s debate over a bill that would expand eligibility for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. The article rates Sen. Natasha Marcus’s claim that there’s no wait list for Opportunity Scholarship vouchers as “Half True” because she failed to tell “the full story.” Yet in going after Sen. Marcus’s statement, the N&O also fails to tell the whole story. By their own measure, the “fact check” itself is just “Half True.”

The bill that Sen. Marcus was debating, SB 609, would make two major changes to expand eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher.

First, the bill (which has passed the Senate and now awaits action in the House) would remove the cap on the number of new vouchers that could be provided to students in grades K-1. Currently, only 40 percent of new scholarships may be awarded to students in grades K-1.

Second, the bill would allow more middle-income families to be eligible for vouchers. Currently, families are eligible if their income is within 246.05 percent of the federal poverty level. If SB 609 becomes law, families with incomes within 277.5 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible. That would raise the eligibility from $63,359 to $71,457 for a family of four.

Senators are pushing these changes because in every year of its existence, funding for Opportunity Scholarship vouchers has exceeded awards of Opportunity Scholarships. Dollars have outstripped demand.

Given the program’s consistent over-funding, it’s totally reasonable that Marcus concluded, “Every student who’s eligible right now has received a voucher…So, there’s no wait list.” However, as the N&O points out, there were 520 income-eligible students in FY 18-19 who did not receive a voucher due to the cap on awards to students in grades K-1. These students are not placed on a wait list, so Marcus is correct – there is no wait list. And even if they were given full-value vouchers, the program would still be over-funded for FY 18-19. But the N&O decided to call her technically true statement “Half True” for “not telling the full story.”

Yet the N&O also fails to tell the whole story.

First, the N&O fails to mention why the cap on K-1 students is important. The cap was put into place because many of the vouchers awarded to students in those grades end up going to children who would have gone to private school anyway. Unlike students in grades 2-12, voucher applicants entering kindergarten or first grade are not required to have previously been enrolled in a public school. The creators of the Opportunity Scholarship voucher put the cap in place – originally set at 35 percent – to limit the amount of funding that the program would drain from public schools. After all, the state fails to save any money by giving someone a voucher to do something they were planning to do already.

The proof is in the numbers. Read more

Commentary

House education budget falls short of needs, misleads on pay increases

It’s a story that North Carolinians have heard all too often this past decade. Despite a steadily growing economy, the General Assembly – in this case, the House – has once again failed to meaningfully address budget shortfalls in our public schools. The only new wrinkle presented by this week’s passage of the 2019 House education budget is a bizarre new attempt to mislead the public on educator pay increases.

First, let’s talk about the headline numbers. House leaders have increased the budget for public schools by 3.8 percent in FY 19-20 and 8.2 percent in FY 20-21 above base levels. This compares to proposed annual increases of 5.9 percent and 8.7, respectively, in the Governor’s budget. The House budget levels would leave total per-student state funding 2 percent below pre-Recession levels on an inflation-adjusted basis.

Very little of the additional House funding will expand resources for our public schools. As has been common over the past five years, most of the additional new funding is directed towards salary and benefit increases for teachers, instructional support personnel, assistant principals, and principals. These pay increases should be thought of as simply covering the cost of inflation, or as recoupment for the four years this decade when salaries were frozen. To date, the past five years of salary increases haven’t translated to notably improved retention, nor have they reversed the trend of plummeting enrollments in our schools of education.

Similarly, the budget’s technical adjustments provide additional funding to account for inflation and changes in student enrollment (until 2014, such changes weren’t even considered as expansion funding).

That leaves just $42 million in FY 19-20 and $62 million in FY 20-21 that will actually be distributed to school districts via the State Public School Fund to expand services for students. That represents a 0.4% increase in school resources in FY 19-20, and a 0.6% increase in FY 20-21. Read more