The top seven education issues in the state budget

By Lindsay Wagner - N.C. Policy Watch

Lawmakers have been making a lot of noise about how hard they’ve been working on a state budget that is more than two months overdue. Speaker Tim Moore tweeted last Thursday that a framework for the final budget could come out later today, budget documents could be released over the weekend and a final vote could come Wednesday or Thursday.

It’s been a very long seven or so months since the start of this year’s legislative session, so in case you’ve gotten so weary you’ve lost track of what’s at stake for public education, here are seven big issues.

Teacher assistants. Once again, TA jobs are on the line and serve as one of the biggest sticking points between the House and the Senate. The House wants to preserve their jobs (of which there are already far fewer than pre-recession levels), while the Senate initially wanted to do away with more than 8,500 TA jobs over the next two years in favor of reducing classroom sizes.

Educators say wait: not enough space or time at this point to reduce class sizes and, by the way, who will drive the buses, administer the medicines, and keep kids safe—not to mention who will make sure third graders are reading proficient?

So what’s the latest? Word on the street is that the Senate has come around to the idea of keeping the number of teacher assistants in line with last year’s numbers. But they might force local districts to spend money intended for teacher assistants only on teacher assistants.

Previously lawmakers touted how they preferred to bestow ‘flexibility’ on locals. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, school districts could take money from the TA fund, for example, to pay for teachers or classroom supplies if they needed those things more, thanks to insufficient state funds for those items. That flexibility could go away, if the Senate puts strings on the TA money.

The News and Observer reports that if the Senate gets their way, 44 school districts that have been diverting a total of $48 million in teacher assistant funds would be affected. Those districts might have to eliminate teacher positions and instead hire TAs.

Driver’s education. The Senate initially wanted to defund driver’s ed and make parents pay $350+ for their kids to learn how to drive. Sen. Dan Soucek (R-Boone) said kids just need to sit behind the wheel for a while—instruction isn’t necessary.

The House has wanted to keep the program going, which some say has markedly improved thanks to recent efforts to increase oversight and coordination between the DMV and driver’s ed programs. Meanwhile, thanks to funding uncertainty, some school districts have already quit providing driver’s ed. And the person at DPI who some say is responsible for making the program better? He got laid off.

So what’s the latest? Word on the street is that the Senate has come around, and the two chambers have agreed to fund driver’s ed for at least one more year. But the details of how are yet to be seen, and the Senate wants more oversight drilled into the program.

Teacher pay. Lawmakers have said they’ll fund the step increases that were foreshadowed in last year’s set of pay raises, which is welcome news to teachers who thought they would have seen those pay bumps earlier this summer. Beginning teachers will see their base pay rise again to $35,000, a promise that was made last year. Everyone else? $750 Christmastime bonuses, which isn’t really a salary increase, but, well—a bonus.

All of these promises were made verbally, though, so let’s see how things actually pan out in the budget documents.

Reminder: NC ranks 42nd in teacher pay, 47th in per pupil spending, and new teachers have no tenure rights. And next year, new teachers may not be able to look forward to…

Health retirement benefits. Senate lawmakers want to end a much-treasured benefit that comes with working for the state government for many years at comparatively lower wages than what private industry pays: state-paid health retirement benefits. Teachers and state employees hired after January 1 of next year would not be eligible for free health insurance upon retirement. House and Senate leaders have been pretty quiet on the budget provision, and we’ll see if it makes it into the final budget.

A-F school grades. The Senate wants to require local school districts to come up with improvement plans for schools that receive Ds or Fs under the state’s new school grading system—but they offer no funds in order to help local schools implement the plans. (See why this is especially important at the bottom of this post.)

“We believe money is not the answer,” said Sen. Brown, explaining instead that districts must identify other ways to deal with factors that contribute to poor performance at failing schools.

Neither Senate nor House budget proposals also do not include language that would change how schools receive A-F school grades, in spite of interest expressed on both sides of the aisle for the school grading system to be amended so that the grades better indicate how well schools are able to help their students improve academically over time.

If the A-F grading system remains as is, by and large high poverty-serving schools with fewer resources would continue to receive failing grades while schools that serve higher income populations would receive better marks—a trend we just saw continue for the second year in a row.

School vouchers. The House and Senate want to expand the Opportunity Scholarships program by $6.8 million, bringing the total cost of the program to $17.6 million each year of the biennium. The vouchers allow low-income students to attend unaccountable private schools with taxpayer dollars.

Now that the state Supreme Court has ruled the program constitutional, we’ll see if legislators move to expand the program even further. According to the Carolina Journal, up to 6,000 eligible students from disadvantaged families may be denied a $4,200 voucher if legislators choose to maintain the arbitrary cap on funding currently in place.

Textbooks. The Senate proposes $58 million over two years for textbooks and digital resources—less than half of what the House has proposed. Funds for textbooks have been slashed to the bone over the past five years and House and Senate proposals still do not restore textbook funds to their 2009 level—$117 million.

Since then, years of a textbook budget that has been nearly zeroed out has left many classrooms working with textbooks nearly a decade old—or with no textbooks at all.

Lindsay Wagner reports on policies and legislation affecting education in North Carolina.

By Lindsay Wagner

N.C. Policy Watch

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