GOP leaders deflect criticism, promise to hear amendments next week
A key House committee signed off on the chamber’s public school budget  report Thursday, despite Democrats’ complaints that they had only just received the details of that multi-billion dollar spending plan that morning.
“We’re looking at a $17.5 billion budget that we’ve seen for the first time today and we’re going to vote on it in three hours,” said Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux, a veteran House Democrat from Durham, Thursday morning. “No, hell no.”
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Yet Rep. Craig Horn, the influential Union County Republican who co-chairs the committee, said lawmakers will be able to make their case in the chamber’s full budget committee and on the House floor next week.
“You’re going to have a lot of time to review the document in detail and organize any amendments that you want to run that you don’t have time to get done today,” said Horn.
The state House plan revealed Thursday morning—which did not include information on the House’s plan for teacher raises; that’s likely to come early next week—bypassed many of the most controversial cuts built into an already-approved Senate budget. 
Instead, House legislators signaled they intend to spend big on initiatives such as a pilot program for so-called “advanced teaching roles” and a “modernization” of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) business system.
The latter, a retrofitting of school finance reporting that GOP backers say will increase transparency in the agency, would cost $10 million in its first year, with plans to increase the state’s investment up to $21 million in 2018-2019.
Meanwhile, House funding for the teaching pilot program—approved in last year’s budget negotiations—would total $8.8 million in recurring and non-recurring dollars, bankrolling a three-year program that provides financial incentives for educators to become school leaders in order to spur performance improvements in the classroom.
It also incorporates House plans for a pilot program granting school calendar flexibility for 20 rural districts, an apparent nod to academic research that suggests shorter summer breaks may improve student performance, particularly among low-performing students.
Meanwhile, the GOP-authored House package bundles in accountability reforms for the state’s growing private school voucher program sought by Democrats, allocating about $900,000 to study voucher students’ gains or losses and requiring that voucher recipients in grades 3-12 participate in one designated standardized test for comparison purposes.
Critics of the publicly-funded vouchers say the program—a favorite of school choice advocates— would spend millions in state dollars over the next decade on primarily religious private schools exempted from many of the accountability and anti-discrimination measures imposed on traditional public schools.
The House plan is sure to come away with its fair share of controversy too. While it sidesteps a massive, 25-percent cut for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) approved by the Senate, it axes several support positions within the department and offers up $1 million for new GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to commission an audit of the agency’s operations.
Johnson has been quiet about the proposed DPI cuts  in the Senate budget, even though the agency’s recently-retired budget head told Policy Watch the loss of funds would “totally destroy” DPI’s capability  to support local school districts.
Meanwhile, the House proposal trims Senate cuts to local school district administrator funding, but still chops state spending on the positions by five percent in 2017-2018 and by 10 percent in 2018-2019. That’s a loss of $10 million in recurring dollars for local districts by 2018-2019.
Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA), said Thursday that, while the House plan reduces Senate-approved cuts to central office personnel, her organization hopes the chamber will remove the cuts altogether.
“Central office funding is down to one percent of state funding for K-12 education,” said Joyce. “That’s a very low management ratio, especially as we see more and more reporting and accountability requirements. Any cut to central office is really difficult, especially for your more rural, smaller districts that don’t have a large tax base for counties to supplement.”
The plan is also likely to spur criticism for its use of about $10.3 million in one-time rather than recurring dollars for school textbooks and digital materials, despite long-standing complaints from districts and school leaders that classroom resources have fallen woefully behind in the last decade.
Another exclusion sure to bolster criticism of GOP lawmakers: House leaders, like the Senate, are not providing any budget guarantees next year of increased funding for “specialty” teachers, arts and physical education teachers.
That’s despite promises from Republican leaders this spring that they intend to revisit specialty teacher funding next year, when a steep legislative mandate to cut class sizes in grades K-3 is set to take effect. Education advocates said this year that, without additional funding, districts would be forced to lay off thousands of specialty educators to make way for new core subject teachers.
Officials with the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), a Raleigh-based organization that lobbies for teachers at the General Assembly, expressed concern with the absence of any class-size funding.
But Joyce, who helped negotiate this spring’s class-size funding deal approved in House Bill 13, said lawmakers were “playing it smart” as they await data this winter on the needs of school districts.
“If they put an amount in that’s too low, then they’re criticized for underfunding it,” she said. “If they put an amount in that’s too high and then the reporting indicates they over-funded, they’ll have to come back and make a cut next year, they’ll be criticized for making a cut.”
Democrats unsuccessfully sought to steer increased voucher spending into the class size funding gap during Thursday’s subcommittee. That vote failed on partisan lines, but Rep. Rosa Gill, a Wake County Democrat and retired math teacher, cautioned lawmakers against expanding voucher spending in the absence of data that suggest the program has been successful.
The spending plan would also allow Superintendent Johnson, who’s been embroiled with the State Board of Education in a battle over budget and hiring powers, to name up to 10 new positions reporting solely to his office. The Senate plan allocated funding for up to five positions.
Johnson currently has the same powers as his Democratic predecessor June Atkinson, but the superintendent has argued the state board, which is also controlled by Republicans, is hindering his efforts to name his preferred staffers.
The House budget provision—which also, like the Senate, sets aside $300,000 in legal fees for Johnson’s office—was included despite suggestions last week from Rep. Horn that the House was reluctant to wade into the legal morass surrounding the state board and Johnson.
While stakeholders were still processing the lengthy budget plan Thursday, it earned a tepid reaction from public school advocates at the NCAE.
“While the part of the House Education budget that has been released so far doesn’t contain some of the damaging provisions as the Senate, it does not make the same strong investments in our public school students that Governor Cooper recommended,” said NCAE President Mark Jewell in a statement Thursday.
“NCAE is very concerned about the lack of money for thousands of specials teachers that were in jeopardy this year over new class size regulations and the lack of permanent funding for student resources like textbooks and digital materials. It’s also a troubling trend of supplanting education funding using lottery funds when they should be used to enhance the education of our students.”
However, Jewell called the budget’s inclusion of bipartisan calls for a school calendar flexibility pilot program a “step in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, Joyce of the NCASA noted some “pretty positive” changes for public schools, including the addition of $11.3 million in recurring funding to support children with disabilities.
The House budget rollout differed somewhat from the state Senate. Senate leadership released their full spending plan around midnight on May 9, before asking committee members to vote on the budget hours later.
After roughly two days of bitter debate, Senate lawmakers approved their final plan just after 3 a.m. on May 12, rankling critics who said the process left the public and the minority party in the dark on the plan’s finer points.
House legislators, however, are releasing the budget in pieces through separate appropriations committees, with plans to reveal the full package early next week. The chamber’s full budget committee is expected to take up the budget next week with a full House vote following.
Horn said the schedule “takes a little pressure off of everyone and hopefully will move the schedule along briskly.”
Yet Democrats like Michaux blasted the House subcommittee’s move to hold a vote on the spending plan Thursday, claiming no such tactics were used when Democrats held the majority in the General Assembly prior to 2011.
“We haven’t had an opportunity to talk to anybody that’s involved in it,” Michaux told Policy Watch. “(House Republicans) may have talked to them, but not the full committee. When I was senior chair of appropriations, we always had meetings while we were developing the budget. The chair met with people who was involved and there was back and forth.”
Michaux, meanwhile, bristled at GOP replies that Democrats would have a chance in the full budget committee and on the House floor to offer up amendments.
“We should be able to do it in committee and not do committee work on the floor,” he said.