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Weekend “must read”: Ten education policies to watch closely in the 2018 legislative session

[1]With the 2018 legislative session underway, and rumors of a budget being unveiled soon, here are 10 education issues that bear close monitoring.

1. Teacher salaries – Both the Governor and the General Assembly have released some details on their teacher pay plans. The Governor’s plan is more generous, providing returning teachers an average raise of approximately 8.3 percent, compared to 6.2 percent under the General Assembly plan.

Assuming the General Assembly won’t be making any changes to the plan it passed in the 2017 budget, it would continue to freeze salaries of North Carolina’s most experienced teachers (roughly, those who currently have 23 or more years of experience). As a result, the General Assembly’s plan would provide no pay increases to 14,600 teachers.

The Governor’s pay plan ensures that all teachers would receive a raise in 2018-19 of at least 4.7 percent (some educators paid on the school psychologist schedule might receive raises of closer to 3.2 percent).

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2. Textbooks, supplies, and materials – The primary grievances raised by teachers at the May 16 Rally for Respect seemed to revolve around the General Assembly’s woeful underfunding [3] of textbooks, supplies, and materials.

Per-student funding for textbooks remains 45 percent below its peak levels:

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Per-student funding for supplies remains 55 percent below its peak levels:

[5]

Recent funding adequacy studies in Maryland and Washington indicate that even at their peak levels in 2009-10, North Carolina’s textbook and supply funding was well below recommended levels.

Federal data indicate that, on average, teachers nationwide are spending nearly $500 of their own money each year to make up for these types of funding shortfalls [6], with teachers in high-poverty schools having to spend even more.

Governor Cooper’s plan increases textbook funding by $15 million and provides each teacher in a traditional public school with a $150 stipend for school supplies (also $15 million). While helpful, these appropriations would still leave our classrooms woefully underfunded. Textbook funding would still be just $50 per student, and districts would get just $40 per student for supplies and materials. Oddly, the Governor’s classroom supply voucher would not be provided to teachers in charter schools.

It is unclear whether the General Assembly will heed the voices of educators and increase investment in these line items. It’s worth noting that $11.3 million of this year’s textbook funding is nonrecurring. That means our districts will receive a cut of $11.3 million (15 percent) to their 2018-19 textbook funding unless the General Assembly adds funds to this line.

3. School Bond / capital for K-3 class-size requirements – According to the 2015-16 Facility Needs Survey [7], North Carolina’s school districts are facing $8.1 billion in school capital needs through the 2019-20 school year. These estimates fail to include the additional costs imposed on districts by the tightened K-3 class size requirements created by S.L. 2018-2 [8] (HB 90). Tightened class size requirements will force districts to expand their elementary schools, often resorting to housing students in trailers and other less-than-ideal temporary classrooms.

To help address these additional capital costs, Governor Cooper’s budget would provide districts a $75 million K-3 Class Size Capital Fund. Additionally, the Governor’s budget includes support for the Public School Building Bond Act (HB 866/SB 542 [9]). The Bond Act [10] would provide $1.9 billion for public school facility grants to all 100 counties.

To date, there has been no indication that the General Assembly plans to advance the Bond Act. It is unclear whether the General Assembly’s budget will provide additional capital funding.

4. Funding for instructional support staff (nurses, psychologists, counselors, etc.) – The recent mass school shootings in Florida and Texas have shined a light on North Carolina’s underfunding of instructional support staff such as school nurses, psychologists, and counselors. Failing to provide our students with adequate mental and physical health care is now viewed as a school safety issue, not just a moral shortcoming.

[11]Funding for instructional support staff has fallen since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011. The state once provided districts with approximately 5.1 instructional support staff for every 1,000 students, compared to just 4.6 per every 1,000 students today. Returning instructional support funding to pre-Recession levels would require approximately $53 million.

Governor Cooper’s budget expands funding by $40 million, which will allow school districts to hire an additional 531 instructional support personnel.

By contrast, it appears the General Assembly budget will provide only $10 million for additional instructional support personnel. This amount would restore less than 20 percent of the cuts made to instructional support by lawmakers since 2011.

[12]Both proposals would leave the state far below what would be considered adequate staffing per industry standards. Reaching industry standards would require more than doubling the $500 million the state currently spends on instructional support personnel.

5.  School segregation bills – In 2017, the General Assembly considered a flurry of bills [13] that would exacerbate North Carolina’s school segregation problem [14].

Of the three bills introduced last session, HB 514 [15] remains very much in play. The bill would allow the Charlotte suburbs of Mint Hill and Matthews to operate their own charter school. Residents of Mint Hill and Matthews would be granted enrollment preference to any charter school operated by the municipalities. Mint Hill is 73 percent white. Matthews is 78 percent white. Meanwhile Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools serves a student population that is only 29 percent white. Creating new schools to serve these majority-white suburbs would exacerbate inequalities in what is already the state’s most segregated school district [16]. Still, two additional majority-white suburbs – Huntersville and Cornelius [17] – have recently voted their support for the segregationist plan.

In addition to exacerbating segregation, the bill suffers from multiple financial and legal complications [18].

It is unlikely that the General Assembly will take any proactive steps to foster a more equitable and integrated school system. Lawmakers could use transportation grants or other rewards to districts implementing school integration plans; base school performance grades entirely on student growth to end the stigmatization of high-poverty schools; mandate the merger of counties with segregated school districts; or enforce laws requiring charter schools to reflect the demographics of their district. To date, no bills have been introduced taking these steps.

6. Artificial revenue caps – One of the most dangerous rumors floating around Raleigh is that the General Assembly plans on introducing artificial revenue caps, possibly via a constitutional amendment capping North Carolina’s income tax. For example, SB 75 [19] would create a constitutional amendment capping our state’s income tax rate at 5.5 percent.

Already-passed tax cuts will leave the state with $3.5 billion less in revenue to invest in our education system. A cap on income taxes would require greater reliance on sales or property taxes, which eat into middle class families’ paychecks and financially strand those who are struggling to get by. Such a scheme would greater responsibility to local governments for funding public schools and teachers, exacerbating funding inequities across school districts [20].

A similar scheme has had disastrous results for Colorado’s education system [21]. Colorado’s passage of artificial revenue limits has seen the state’s ranking plummet in terms of teacher pay, per-pupil spending, and funding effort. Over the same period, the state’s Black-white achievement gaps have grown.

7. Tackling racial disparities in student disciplineA recent report from WRAL [22] finds that Black students in North Carolina “are nearly six times more likely to be arrested at school and school activities than white students” and that North Carolina’s racial student discipline disparities are among the worst in the nation.

Racial disparities in student discipline deserve increased attention as both Republicans and Democrats promote increased investment in school resource officers (SROs). The Governor proposed increasing funding for SROs by $10 million – $3 million of which would be used to expand SROs in elementary and middle schools. The Republican proposal [23] would increase funding for SROs in elementary and middle schools by $5 million.

Research on the impact of SROs on racial discipline disparities is fairly thin, but indicates that SROs increase the odds that students will be referred to law enforcement [24] for committing normal school infractions [25] like dress code violations or water balloon fights [26]. The increase in referrals can be due to overreaction or lack of training from SROs. Chip Hughes, former chairman of the Governor’s Task Force for Safer Schools, offered disturbing testimony at an April legislative meeting, indicating that SROs’ morale was low because officers feel “their hands are tied” [27] when it comes to enforcing order in schools. The increased referrals can also be the result of under-trained teachers turning to an SRO instead of modifying their own classroom management strategies.

North Carolina’s SROs do not receive any sort of mandatory training. If SROs are going to be expanded towards lower grade levels, it is important for both SROs and teachers to receive training on racial bias and how to manage student behavior. Unfortunately, the Governor’s budget contained no such measures. Draft legislation from the House Select Committee on School Safety [28] would require SROs to receive “tactical training and mental health training,” but makes no mention of racial bias.

North Carolina lawmakers could also help reduce racial discipline disparities by supporting districts implementing strategies to reduce school suspensions. A recent study found that when Chicago cut down on student suspensions, student attendance and test scores both improved [29]. Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any legislative proposals to support districts looking to reduce racial discipline disparities through alternative strategies such as reformative justice.

8. Expansion of NC Pre-K – Out of the myriad educational programs and initiatives, few, if any, have a stronger evidentiary basis than high-quality pre-kindergarten program. North Carolina’s program, NC Pre-K, has shown persistent, positive benefits. [30] Despite the overwhelming evidence of NC Pre-K’s benefits, the number of four-year olds served by the program remains below pre-Recession levels.

[31]The Governor’s budget would add 1,000 slots while also increasing the per-slot reimbursement rate.

Senators Jackson, Foushee, and Waddell have introduced a long-term plan, Go Big for Early Childhood [32] that would increase funding for NC Pre-K by $20 million per year for five years and provide tax credits to early education professionals.

The General Assembly has supported modest increases in NC Pre-K funding in recent years, so it would not be surprising if this year’s budget increased funding above already-planned levels.

9. School choice (vouchers and virtual charters) – Out of the myriad educational programs and initiatives, few, if any, have a weaker evidentiary basis than school vouchers and virtual charter schools. Recent evaluations of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio have uncovered incredibly poor test results for voucher students [33]. Math results for virtual charter schools are so bad that researchers famously described it “literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year [34].” Our own virtual charter schools are arguably the worst-performing in the state, scoring dead last in terms of student growth their first year of operation and remaining in the bottom 1 percent their second year of operation.

Despite this track record of failure, General Assembly leaders are insistent on expanding North Carolina’s voucher and virtual charter programs.

North Carolina’s largest voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship (available to families with income no greater than 246.05 percent of the federal poverty level), is set to grow from $45 million to $55 million. General Assembly leaders continue to expand the program even though we know nothing about how well the Opportunity Scholarship students are doing in their private schools. Lawmakers have fought to ensure that the Opportunity Scholarship program has the worst accountability in the country [35]. Furthermore, it appears as that the program will spend less than $30 million this year, so it is unclear why this additional funding is necessary. The Governor’s budget wisely halts the growth of this unaccountable program and redirects funding towards more useful ends.

General Assembly leaders are also looking to extend the term of the “pilot program” for the state’s two virtual charter schools. HB 988 [36]/SB 731 [37] would extend the “pilot program” through the 2022-23 school year, and delay the programs initial evaluation report from November 2018 to November 2020.

Virtual charter schools are arguably the single most egregiously bad education policy enacted by the Republican-led General Assembly. Virtual charters have failed in almost every instance, and most states and charter advocates are distancing themselves from the model. For-profit virtual charter operators have a track record of fraudulent business practices [38], and North Carolina’s virtual charter laws do little to protect from similar fraudulent activities here. The schools serve no useful purpose, as students have other, higher-quality online learning opportunities via the state-run North Carolina Virtual Public School.

10. Support for low-performing schools – One of the most contentious debates in recent years has surrounded differing strategies on how best to assist low-performing schools.

Historically, support for low-performing schools has been provided by the Department of Public Instruction’s District and School Transformation (DST) teams. DST teams work inside low-performing districts and schools to develop local capacity to sustainably improve systems and processes. There is good evidence that schools served by DST teams have outperformed comparable schools [39].

Despite DST’s apparent success, the General Assembly has instead slashed the program [40] in favor of an approach known as the Innovative School District (ISD). Under the ISD, control of low-performing schools is turned over to a charter school operator, an idea that failed when tried in Tennessee [41]. After much controversy and apparent corruption [42], the State Board approved turning over Robeson County’s Southside Ashpole Elementary school to a company with no record of turning around low-performing schools [43].

It bears monitoring whether the General Assembly will change course this year. Barring action in this year’s budget, DPI will be cut by a further $5 million (approx. 12.5 percent) in FY 2018-19. If implemented, these cuts will further cripple the reach of the state’s successful DST model. The General Assembly might also seek to have the ISD assume control of more schools.