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EdExplainer: Long session legislative recap

The long session of the General Assembly wrapped up last week, and education was a hot topic throughout. The budget and a slew of bills focused on changing the education landscape in North Carolina, covering topics like principal pay, charter schools, the educator preparation system, and more. Here are highlights of the just-completed session: 

Senate Bill 257 — The budget

Teacher Pay

No topic received more attention in the budget debate than teacher pay. 

The final budget raised teachers salaries an average of 3.3 percent in the first year of the biennium and 9.6 percent over both years. Starting teachers get no pay raise under the proposal. The highest raises go to teachers with between 17 and 24 years of experience. 

Republicans hailed the pay proposal as a success, pointing out that this was the fifth year in a row that teacher pay increased. Democrats said the Republican budget plan did not come close to the proposal put forth by Governor Roy Cooper. 

The Governor’s plan would have raised teacher pay more than 5 percent on average in both years of the biennium, and Democrats argued that he allocated more money for the raises than Republicans. Though his two-year percentage pay increase and the Republican plan seemed similar, Democrats said the governor’s measure included more equitable pay raises for all teachers, where the Republicans’ plan favored some teachers over others. 

Principal pay

The problems with principal pay were a subject of a study commission prior to the long session of the General Assembly. It was generally understood, and reported on by EducationNC, that there were numerous problems with the principal pay schedule. North Carolina principals are 50th out of all the states and Washington, D.C., in principal pay, and lawmakers knew they had to do something. 

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, initially filed a bill to allocate funds to increasing principal pay. But the money was going to be given in block-grant where districts would receive a set sum and would have to decide how to spread it out amongst principals. Under his bill, the new money would have come from the education lottery. 

In the final budget, the block grant was replaced by a new principal pay schedule, and the allocation comes from the general fund instead of the lottery.  Under the budget, principals will receive an average 8.6 percent salary increase over two years and assistant principals a 13.4 percent average salary increase over the biennium.

Teaching Fellows Program

The budget brought back the popular Teaching Fellows Program. The original Teaching Fellows Program, started in 1986, gave scholarships to students to attend college and train to become teachers provided they were willing to teach in North Carolina schools for at least four years after graduation. The General Assembly ended funding in 2011. 

The new Teaching Fellows Program would give students up to $8,250 per year in loans that could be forgiven if the students become teachers and serve for a certain period of time at North Carolina elementary or high schools. Unlike the earlier program, students in the new program will have to specialize in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) or special education field. 

Opportunity Scholarships

The state’s opportunity scholarship (voucher) program is one that provides up to $4,200 to low-income and working-class families with students who want to attend private school in North Carolina. Last year, the budget gave $34.8 million for opportunity scholarships with an ambitious plan to increase funding by $10 million each year until 2026-27. The final budget keeps to that plan, appropriating $44.8 million in 2017-18 and $54.8 million in 2018-19.

Education Savings Accounts

The budget created an education savings account program which gives up to $9,000 in public money to families of children with disabilities to use on tuition for non-public schools, books, other supplies, and testing costs. The program had a lot of Republican support, but some Democrats argued that it amounted to little more than an additional opportunity scholarship program. 

NC Pre-K

The final budget included funding for 3,535 new seats for NC Pre-K, cutting the program’s waiting list by 75 percent. While that number is heartening to some advocates of early childhood education, the numbers do fall short of what the House and governor offered in their budget proposals. Both of those plans would have eliminated the waiting list altogether. 

DPI budget cut

The state Department of Public Instruction faces funding reductions under the budget. Funding would be cut by 6.2 percent in the first year and 13.9 percent total over the biennium. The proposal would also include $1 million for an audit of DPI that will increase the total two-year cut to about 15.8 percent.

While the budget did some heavy lifting on education, a slew of bills were filed this session. Here are some highlights: 

House Bill 13 — Loosening class size restrictions

Early in the session, the debate between lawmakers centered on House Bill 13. The problems arose last session when the General Assembly’s mandated class size restriction were slated to go into effect this coming school year. The mandate eliminated flexibility that school districts used to fund enhancement teachers — art, music, and physical education instructors. 

The House initially passed House Bill 13 as a way to fix the problem, essentially loosening the restrictions so districts would still have the budgetary flexibility they needed. This came after extensive complaints from teachers, administrators, and districts across the state about the necessity of enhancement teachers and the need for flexibility to pay for them. 

But when the bill hit the Senate, it changed. The bill the Senate passed, and which finally cleared the General Assembly, delayed implementation of the class size restrictions by a year. In that year, the General Assembly would collect data from school districts to determine the need for enhancement teachers around the state. Leading Republican lawmakers promised that once that need was determined, funds would be allocated to pay for those teachers. 

Lawmakers initially said they put language in the final budget bill basically promising to fund enhancement teachers in the 2018-19 school year, but they inadvertently left that language out. A technical corrections bill eventually added that language to the budget. 

Senate Bill 599 — Expanding educator preparation

Senate Bill 599 is legislation that opens up the teacher preparation system in North Carolina to entities other than universities. The teacher preparation system in North Carolina is mostly managed by public and private universities. The legislation will allow for-profit, private organizations to come in and offer programs as well. See our coverage of this issue here, here, here, and here

The legislation also creates a commission that will oversee the teacher prep system in North Carolina, and it established rules and accountability measures for all teacher preparation programs. 

The bill passed the General Assembly and is awaiting signature or veto from the governor. 

House Bill 6 — Education funding study bill

A bill establishing a task force to examine how the state funds public education was filed earlier in the session. House Bill 6 would have set up the task force to look at the state’s allotment system and seek alternative approaches, including a weighted-student formula where the money districts get would be based specifically on the students they have and those students’ needs.

House lawmakers initially wanted the bill largely as a way of looking at how to possibly simplify the complex system that is currently in place. 

Presently, the state doles out the state education funds using a series of allotments — 37 in total. The allotments are essentially line items. It gives a certain amount of money for classroom teachers, a specific amount of money for school building administration, and so on. It is called the resource allocation model.

Under a weighted-student formula, the money would be based on the student. The state would allot a base amount of money for each student in the state. The arbitrary example given at a November 2016 meeting was $7,500 (note: that is not the funding number proposed, simply a number picked to use in an example).

Now, the distribution of funds changes depending on the type of student. For example, a student with no special needs affords the school $7,500. But a K-3 student could get an additional .19, or $1,425, of that base of $7,500. If that student has disabilities, he or she could get an additional .98 or $7,350 of that initial $7,500. When all the numbers are added up, the school would get a total of $16,275 for that one student.

Check out our earlier coverage to get a better understanding of how a weighted-student formula would work.

While that bill did not ultimately pass, the study task force looking at a weighted-student formula was included in the final budget. 

House Bill 704 — Study committee on dividing large school districts 

This bill creates a committee to investigate the process that would be necessary to divide big school systems into smaller ones. The committee will also examine the question of whether legislation should be filed that would allow for the break up of bigger school systems. At present, state law establishes the procedures for merging school systems but does not provide guidance on breaking them up. 

Some supporters of this bill worry that there are school systems in the state who may have grown too big. In order to even consider breaking up a school district, lawmakers would first have to discern the process for making that happen, something that the study committee will help make clear. 

The bill passed the General Assembly and is awaiting signature or veto from the governor. 

HB 800 — Various changes to charter school laws

House Bill 800, Various Changes to Charter School Laws, would have originally allowed corporations called “charter partners” to grant priority enrollment to its employees’ children.

To be a charter partner, the business would have had to donate property or the school building, or help the school with renovations or technological resources. No more than 50 percent of the student population would have been given priority in the charter school’s lottery. However, if there were more applicants, the bill would have required their acceptance in a separate lottery. 

This provision of the bill was eventually removed. What passed still elicited some controversy. The final bill would allow charter schools to expand their enrollment without seeking State Board of Education approval. Next year, charter schools can expand by 25 percent without approval if they are not low-performing. The year after, they can expand by 30 percent if they are not low-performing. 

The bill passed the General Assembly and is awaiting signature or veto from the governor. 

School Performance Grades

There were a variety of bills that attempted to change the way school performance grades are calculated in North Carolina. Currently, schools received a grade that is based on a formula that takes into account 80 percent academic achievement and 20 percent academic growth. One bill sought to change that formula to 50-50. Another bill would have required that schools get a separate grade for both academic growth and academic achievement. 

The House budget proposal adopted the second bill. But the final budget, instead, left the calculation of the school grades in its current state. 

Lawmakers who supported tweaking the school performance grade formula argued the current formula’s emphasis on student achievement does not give the public an accurate snapshot of how well students are learning. Academic growth, they argue, is as important, if not more so. Academic growth, they say, is a measure of how much student learning is progressing, whereas academic achievement could easily be measuring what students already know when they come into school

Academic achievement shows whether a student knows what he or she is supposed to know at any particular grade level. A student is considered proficient if he or she demonstrates on a standardized test that he or she knows the grade level material.  

Academic growth is a measurement of how much a student has learned. It is determined by measuring expected progress against actual progress. The measurement is complex because it is independent of whether the student knows what he or she should know in a given grade. 

In recent releases of school performance grades, there is a high correlation between the overall poverty level of students in the school and low school performance grades. 

House Bill 90 — Eliminate NC Final Exams

A bill that would have eliminated NC Final Exams failed to make it through the General Assembly. 

The legislation would have only affected classes not aligned with federal requirements — that is, classes where federal requirements do not require the state provide performance data. 

In place of those exams, teachers would have developed their own end-of-year tests for students. 

The NC Final Exams are tests given in subjects that do not have an end-of-grade or end-of-course exams. They contribute to a student’s grade and serve as part of teacher evaluation. 

The bill passed both chambers, but changes were made, and it failed to make it out of a conference committee. 

School flexibility 

School flexibility was a big topic this session, with more than 50 bills seeking to give local districts more control over their school calendars. 

At present, the General Assembly mandates that traditional-calendar schools must start no sooner than the Monday closest to August 26 and finish no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

One bill, House Bill 389, would have created a three-year pilot program, giving school calendar flexibility to 20 counties selected on the basis of student poverty levels, counties’ poverty tier designations, and the number of low-performing schools in the county, and other measures.

None of the calendar flexibility measures passed both chambers this session.

House Bill 838 — Give State Superintendent funds to hire employees

This bill would have given State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson $600,000 to hire five or six people for unspecified positions. This bill did not pass, but the budget provides the superintendent funding to hire up to 10 people for unspecified positions, at a cost of $700,000 recurring in both years of the biennium. 

What is next?

The General Assembly adjourned last week, and will return for a short session next spring. Typically, the assembly would not meet again until that session, but two special sessions were scheduled. 

One session begins on August 3, and another follows on September 6. They could address a variety of issues, including vetoes from the governor, bills that were in the process of being resolved when this session ended, and redistricting.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.