Partway through last week’s unveiling of the state Senate budget, Sen. Phil Berger was asked by reporters if there were any major cuts to speak of in the $22.2 billion spending plan.
Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County with a historically antagonistic relationship with North Carolina’s public education system, indicated that he couldn’t think of any.
The highlight, it seemed, was a dramatically more aggressive teacher pay plan than either proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory or leaders in the state House that would boost teachers’ average pay, with local supplements, to more than $54,000 over the next two years.
The proposal would make North Carolina the top-paying state for teachers in the southeast, Berger and Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown promised, all while adding about $394 million for public education to the budget plan.
“We just prioritized the teacher pay raises in a different way than the governor or the House did,” said Berger.
But public education advocates say the proposal, which was speedily approved by the Senate last week and forwarded to the state House, buries multiple cuts and controversial policy changes for North Carolina schools’ in its text.
Among the most pivotal cuts, according to school leaders, Senate legislators want to ax a $7.5 million new principal preparation program, nix a $10 million increase for a school Internet connectivity initiative, slash after-school program funding by almost $5 million and scrap House plans for a $2 million teacher scholarship program aimed at filling shortages in math and science and hard-to-staff schools.
The budget would also confirm House-approved changes loosening regulations for the state’s controversial virtual charter schools and hands down nearly a 5 percent cut for the state Department of Public Instruction, which oversees North Carolina’s K-12 schools.
Perhaps most controversially, it also speeds a massive expansion of publicly-funded scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, establishing a $35 million reserve fund that would grow by $10 million annually up to $145 million by 2027-2028. When expansion is completed, the vouchers, officially known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, would be available to another 20,000 North Carolina children, Brown said.
The public voucher program has been widely criticized by many school advocates, who point out that the program mostly pays for students to attend religious schools with lax anti-discrimination requirements and accountability measures.
As Policy Watch reported this year, one such voucher-eligible school requires students to sign a pledge denouncing homosexuality—just one of multiple reports of voucher recipients attending private schools with apparently discriminatory admissions and operations practices.
It also comes days after a new report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. thinktank, found voucher students in other states were academically lagging their public schools peers.
Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of N.C., a research and advocacy group in Raleigh, says that, while much of the news surrounding the chamber’s budget circulated around teacher pay, it’s the “big picture” that’s most troubling about the Senate funding plan.
“Anytime we talk about increasing education funding, the response is always, ‘Where else in education should we cut to pay for it?’” said Poston. “Education funding should be first. Let the other lesser priorities fight over items 18 through 20. We’re not there yet.”
Mark Jewell, president-elect of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), a group representing teachers statewide, cast the proposal as little more than election-year politics.
“NCAE has been consistently beating the drum that for students to be more successful, we must invest fully in our public schools by increasing resources students have and by compensating educators as professionals,” said Jewell. “Now that it’s an election year, Senate leaders are trying to play catch-up on teacher pay, but they have gone backwards in some areas with cuts to resources for at-risk students and technology for our classrooms.”
To groups like the NCAE, the budget may have seemed a change in tone, but in the end, it’s more of the same from the legislature.
“Senate leaders continue a trend of devaluing our most experienced teachers by shortchanging them on raises and also doesn’t value the whole community of education professionals it takes to make our public schools successful,” said Jewell. “Instead of investing in our public school students, Senate leaders continue to set artificial spending limits and set aside huge amounts in the state’s ‘Rainy Day Fund’ when it’s a rainy day for many of our public schools.”
Most political observers in Raleigh are expecting House leadership to reject the Senate budget in the coming days, setting the stage for a conference committee to negotiate the differences between the competing budget plans.
It’s a regular event in the N.C. General Assembly in recent years. Last year, lawmakers in the House and Senate could not come to an agreement on their spending priorities until September, more than ten weeks after the legislature was required to wrap budget negotiations.
Lawmakers are expected to come to an accord sooner this year, but Rep. Craig Horn, an influential education budget writer from Union County, told Policy Watch this week that he views the competing plans as not so far apart on teacher pay.
When it comes to other key provisions, such as the principal preparation program and a House-approved revamp of the school grading system, Horn thinks the differences may be “hard to resolve.”
Horn indicated surprise that Senate officials would back repealing the principal prep program just a year after it was launched.
“We don’t understand that at all,” Horn said. “The principal is pretty much the most important person in the school because they hire and fire teachers.”
Agreed, said Poston. “Teachers leave the classroom because of low pay and a lack of respect. But they stay because of outstanding principals. We’re still not focused on that.”
When it comes to the school grading system, House leaders want to shift the much-criticized formula to focus equally on student growth and test scores, responding to educators’ complaints that the current, Senate-backed formula—80 percent based on test scores; 20 percent on student growth—stigmatizes low-performing schools and makes teacher recruiting difficult.
The Senate plan also converts the grading scale to a more stringent 10-point system, meaning a school could earn a grade of “A” with a score of 90 or above. In the House version, a school could earn an “A” with a score of 85 or above.
Horn added that the Senate-approved voucher expansion might be another major sticking point when budget negotiations begin. The Union County Republican said he was “surprised” that Senate lawmakers would seek such a rapid expansion of the program.
“I have supported and continue to be supportive of opportunity scholarships,” said Horn. “But I’m not yet ready to pursue that kind of expansion.”
Poston points out the voucher expansion comes despite lawmakers’ arguments that the state can’t afford its growing public education needs.
“But somehow we’re able to throw more than $100 million to unaccountable, religious schools over the next decade,” said Poston. “It just seems our priorities are out of wack.”
Horn says the next few weeks will be key to resolving the House and Senate conflicts. “We need to see how we can come together on this.”