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The General Assembly gears up for its long session today. In the coming weeks and months, lawmakers in the House and Senate will put forth a slew of bills and hammer out a budget.

While it’s impossible to say exactly what those bills or that budget will look like, we have some ideas about what we are mostly likely to see come out of this session.

The budget

The most important bill in any legislative session is almost always the budget: How much money is the General Assembly going to appropriate for K-12 education? Since this is a biennial budget, the legislature will be looking at funding for both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years.

Here is how much the legislature has appropriated for K-12, the last five years:

For 2012-13, the revised appropriation was about $7.5 billion.

For 2013-14, it was about $7.8 billion

For 2014-15, it was about $8.1 billion.

For 2015-16, it was about $8.5 billion.

For 2016-17, it was about $8.7 billion.

You can find the numbers for yourself in the Joint Conference Committee Reports on the Continuation, Expansion and Capital Budgets on the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Budget Legislation Page.

Given the trend over the last few years, it is likely that the state’s spending on public education will exceed $8.7 billion this year. Add to that the fact that our new Governor Roy Cooper has publicly stated his commitment to increased funding for public education, and it’s a lock that we will see a bigger budget come out of the legislature.

Now, the question when it comes to the amount being spent on K-12 education is, and always will be: Is it enough?

This is a question that’s particularly important given the Leandro decision and the number of low-performing schools in North Carolina. Leandro held that in North Carolina students have a constitutional right to a “sound, basic education.” Go here to read more about it.

For 2015-16, there were a total of 489 low-performing schools and 10 low-performing districts. See a full list here. There were a total of 2,592 public schools — both traditional and charter — in 2015-16, so that means about 18.86 percent of the state’s public schools were low performing.

The state Department of Public Instruction has a division who’s job it is to help those schools and districts turn around. It’s called, appropriately enough, District and School Transformation (DST). And given its resources, the staff of DST has the capacity to help turnaround about 75 of those schools.

Lawmakers have tried other legislative means to address low-performing schools. In the short session, the General Assembly passed an Achievement School District (ASD) that will take five schools from among the state’s lowest performing and assemble them into a “district” run by an appointed superintendent. The schools will have flexibility ordinary public schools don’t and the superintendent can contract with outside entities such as charter management organizations to run the schools.

The ASD bill also included some other provisions, like Innovation Zones, that could give additional flexibility to a small number of traditional public schools, but the fact remains that the state does not have a plan to help hundreds of low-performing schools as things currently stand.

So, the big question for the General Assembly is, if DST is going to help turnaround schools, does it need more money? If not, what other programs/strategies is it going to use to address the large number of low-performing schools?

One last thing to consider about the budget is whether or not the funding formula the state uses could change.

 Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee met in the recess between sessions to talk about the possibility of forming a task force to look at changing the funding formula for education.

Check out our earlier coverage to get a better understanding of what lawmakers are discussing and how it might work.

The committee approved draft legislation to create the task force. But that legislation would need to be introduced and passed, and currently it only creates a task force to study the possibility of changing funding formulas.

However, it would not be surprising to see lawmakers take up changes to the funding formula independent of the task force legislation this session.

Governance

To say that the educational structure in North Carolina is fragmented would be an understatement.

We have a Governor, the Governor’s Education Cabinet, the legislature, a President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Republican Phil Berger who has a lot of influence on this issue, a State Board of Education, a chair of the State Board of Education, the Department of Public Instruction, a Superintendent of Public Instruction, 115 districts with 115 superintendents, 100 county commissions funding the districts, 167 charter schools, the Charter School Advisory Board, and a judge presiding over the Leandro case. Who is in charge?

During the “surprise” special session of the legislature in December, the General Assembly tried to clarify this power structure somewhat by granting more power to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction and less to the State Board of Education.

This was an incredibly controversial move for many reasons.

One, lawmakers did it just as a Democratic Superintendent, June Atkinson, was leaving office and a Republican one, Mark Johnson, was entering. Given the fact that the General Assembly is Republican-controlled, this gave the move extra significance for Democrats. However, it is important to note that both the chair and vice-chair of the State Board of Education are also Republicans.

Two, some — members of the State Board of Education in particular — say the transfer of power is unconstitutional, violating Article IX, Section 5 of the State Constitution, which states:

“The State Board of Education shall supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for its support, except the funds mentioned in Section 7 of this Article, and shall make all needed rules and regulations in relation thereto, subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly.”

And, in fact, the transfer of powers has been halted as the case is taken up in court. See the court complaint here.

Regardless, the move by the General Assembly shows that lawmakers are interested in consolidation of power when it comes to public education, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility we could see more moves on this front during the long session.

One more complication in this whole issue of governance is the status of the Leandro case. Back in October, Judge Howard Manning made a request to be removed from the case, and Chief Justice Mark Martin reassigned it on October 7 to Emergency Superior Court Judge David Lee.

Manning has been overseeing the case since 1997. He officially retired in July 2015, but planned to continue to oversee the case until his request to be removed in October.

Teacher pay

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. There is likely to be some move to increase teacher pay. We know this because increasing teacher pay has been a steady trend over the last few years. And in fact, the teacher pay plan passed in the short session budget compromise is a multi-year plan with the goal of reaching an average salary for teachers of almost $55,000 in three years.

In the short session, the legislature passed a 4.7 percent increase in average teacher salary, which lawmakers said would bring average salaries up to just over $50,000 in fiscal year 2016-17. The final numbers that would show that average being achieved are not in yet, but Kris Nordstrom has been sounding an alarm that lawmakers’ goals will fall short. Nordstrom is a policy analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project and former analyst for the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division.

Regardless of where that final average lands, Senate Republicans and other legislative leaders have made no secret of the fact that they want that average even higher.

Principal pay

Principals didn’t fare so well during the last short session of the General Assembly. Administrators received a 1.5 percent annual recurring salary increase, a .5 percent nonrecurring bonus, and an experience-based step increase.

But, the short session also put together a Joint Legislative Task Force on principal pay that has been examining the principal salary schedule and trying to find a better way to pay principals.

We wrote extensively last week on the recommendations that ended up coming out of that Committee, but we will quickly break them down here.

The Committee made four recommendations in its final report. The first is split into an either/or proposition.

Either:

The task force thinks the General Assembly should scrap the principal salary schedule altogether — instead giving school districts the freedom to pay principals as they see fit and giving them enough money to boost all principal salaries by at least 3 percent.

Or:

The report offers the General Assembly the option to link the principal salary schedule with the teacher salary schedule at the master’s level, with a certain extra percentage allotted principals.

That’s recommendation one.

Recommendation two is giving bonuses to principals in low-wealth districts who get results. Principals in low-performing schools would be eligible as well.

Recommendation three is to link the assistant principal salary schedule with the teacher salary schedule at the master’s level, plus a certain extra percentage for assistant principals.

And the last recommendation is to come up with a long-term plan to continue to increase principal pay.

These recommendations are spurred, in part, by the fact that North Carolina is 50th in the nation (including Washington, D.C) for principal pay.

Principal and teacher prep

The subject of how to best prepare principals and teachers for their roles in schools is one that is always being discussed.

In the last couple of sessions of the General Assembly, lawmakers took steps to bolster the state’s system of preparing principals through a principal prep program.

During the long session of 2015, the General Assembly appropriated $1 million for principal preparation purposes. In the most recent short session in 2016, the legislature gave an additional $3.5 million recurring to the issue. That money is administered by the North Carolina Alliance for School Leadership Development (NCASLD) which is supposed to identify principal prep organizations in North Carolina that can create strong programs for training principals.

NCASLD already has handed out a number of grants for programs, some of which are supposed to be up and running at the start of 2017 — right about now.

It’s possible that lawmakers could bolster the funds for the principal prep program even more this session.

School performance grades

The always-controversial school performance grades are likely to be the subject of legislation this session, though it’s unclear exactly what that might look like.

Ever since they came into existence, the grades — which give schools a grade based on a formula that is made up of 80 percent academic performance and 20 percent academic growth — have been a source of controversy.

The grades are assigned on a 15-point scale, with an A being 85 to 100, and so on down the list.

Critics say that allowing 80 percent of the grade to be academic achievement — basically students’ performance on a test that happens one day a year — is unfair. Critics say that how much a student learns in a year — academic growth — is more indicative of how well a school is faring.

Get a primer on the school performance grades and their role in the recent 2016 election here.

In previous legislative sessions, there have been numerous attempts to modify the make-up of the grades. In the previous short session the House of Representatives put into its budget a change to the achievement/growth ratio that would put it at 50-50 instead of 80-20. That ultimately gained no traction and the formula ended up remaining the same.

There is also a chance that lawmakers might propose different formulas for different grade levels — elementary, middle, and high school. That’s a proposal discussed by former Superintendent June Atkinson prior to the recent elections. She said in a podcast that it may make sense to have growth account for more of the schools’s grade at the elementary school and middle school level, and then have the formula reach 50-50 at the high school level.

It’s also possible that the grading scale could change. During the short session of the General Assembly, the Senate wanted the scale to move to a 10-point system, with 90-100 being an A, and so on down the list. The House wanted to keep the scale at 15-points, and that is ultimately where it remains.

Regardless of the specific changes, the General Assembly is likely going to be forced to do something. The grades as they are currently determined are incompatible with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Read the details of how and what that might mean in EdNC reporter Liz Bell’s article covering the topic.

School calendar flexibility

In North Carolina, school start and end dates are set by the General Assembly. Schools can’t open earlier than the Monday closest to August 2. They can’t end later than the Friday closest to June 11.

In a state as geographically diverse as North Carolina that can pose problems. Take snow days, for instance. Heavy snowfall in the west of the state can mean that schools over there have to scramble to make up missed days within the sanctioned confines of the legislature’s mandated calendar. That can mean holidays missed and weekends spent in school.

In past sessions of the General Assembly, a diverse coalition of groups on both the right and the left joined forces to advocate for school calendar flexibility for local districts.

Despite their efforts, and the filing of 43 local bills asking for calendar flexibility for 75 counties in 2015, a move toward local flexibility went nowhere. That’s because of the tourism industry, a powerful lobby that relies on the current calendar for its profitable summer vacation season.

There may be some movement on calendar flexibility this session though, at least when it comes to one aspect of the debate: syncing school start and stop dates with those of community colleges.

This is something that local districts have been asking legislators for, particularly when it comes to those districts that have early-college high schools affiliated with local community colleges.

During the “surprise” special session in December, legislators in the House tried to pass a bill that would align the two calendars through the legislature. The bill didn’t clear the House before the session ended, but it’s appearance in December makes it likely that it will reappear during this long session.

Class size limitations

Another leftover from the “surprise” December General Assembly session is a House bill that would allow for some flexibility on class size limitations included in the 2016-17 short session budget.

That budget required that class sizes in elementary school be limited as follows:

Kindergarten: one teacher per 18 students
First grade: one teacher per 16 students
Second grade: one teacher per 17 students
Third grade: one teacher per 17 students

The limitations were meant to begin in the 2017-18 school year. While everyone generally agrees that keeping class sizes low is good in theory, the requirement created some panic in local districts.

The problem is that the class size limitations could create staffing issues in schools which don’t have enough teachers to fill the smaller, and thus more numerous, classes. That could mean taking instructors who teach electives, such as art and music, and putting them in regular classrooms, possibly eliminating the non-core classes altogether or requiring extra funds to hire more positions.

The legislation, which passed the House but was never heard in the Senate, tweaked those class size limitations.

It would let the maximum average classroom size for K-3 exceed the teacher to student ratios by three students, and the maximum individual class size for K-3 by six students.

While this exact bill might not be brought again during this long session, some sort of fix to the class size limitation issue is likely.

Opportunity scholarships

The 2016-17 short session of the General Assembly brought together an ambitious plan for expanding the Opportunity Scholarship (voucher) program in North Carolina.

Just a refresher, this program provides public funds of up to $4,200 a year for a student to attend a private school in North Carolina.

The 2016-17 budget put in place a plan to raise the funding for the program by $10 million each year for 11 years, increasing the money appropriated from about $35 million in 2016-17, to almost $145 million in 2027-28 and each year after.

Of course, just because the General Assembly makes a plan in 2016-17 doesn’t mean it will keep that plan going for 11 years, so we will see in this legislative session if the planned increase continues.

Another wrinkle in the Opportunity Scholarship debate is the election of Republican President Donald Trump, and his appointment of voucher champion Betsy DeVos to Education Secretary.

Trump has proposed $20 billion in federal funds to be used as block grants to encourage states to fund private-school vouchers. If that proposal goes ahead, we could see the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program in North Carolina ramp into overdrive.

More and more students going to private schools on the public dime raises the issue of accountability again and whether and what standards these schools should be held to.

Testing

The subject of testing for students in North Carolina public education is always one rife for controversy. High-stakes tests that cause stress, too many tests, teaching to the test — these are phrases heard again and again in the halls of academia, schools, and the General Assembly.

New Superintendent Mark Johnson has called out over-testing in particular as being one problem with education in North Carolina.

For a while now, the Department of Public Instruction has been instituting a pilot of a new testing system. It was previously called the Proof of Concept study, and is now called NC Check-Ins.

The idea behind the Check-Ins is to have tests that are formative instead of summative. Basically a summative test tells how well students do on the subject matter. It’s usually held at the end of the year to determine how the school year went. Think End of Grade (EOG) tests. A formative test is a test that is done while the instructional year is still ongoing, and the goal is to give teachers input to guide future instruction.

This is what the NC Check-Ins website says about the purpose of the Check-Ins.

“The NC Check-Ins (formerly Proof of Concept) will be administered throughout the school year to provide teachers and parents with immediate feedback for guiding subsequent instruction. The North Carolina State Board of Education will use the results to determine the best course of action for future state assessments.”

When this study was first conceived, the plan was to add summative elements to the three interim tests in the hopes that the state could gather the same data captured in an End of Grade test without having to actually administer one.

However, with the rebranding of the NC Check-Ins, it’s no longer clear that this element is still part of the pilot.

Currently, the EOG would still be given at the end of the year after three “Check-Ins.”

Tammy Howard, DPI’s director of accountability services, said at a September State Board of Education meeting that the original plan is not completely out the window.

“It’s still a possibility, is how I would phrase it,” Howard said. “We will continue to look to see if that opportunity is there.”

Superintendent Johnson was critical of the NC Check-Ins, particularly when the name was changed from the Proof-of-Concept study to its current title.

He said in an e-mail:

“We teach our children that breaking promises and name-calling are unacceptable behavior. Shouldn’t we expect the same from our leaders?

“For years, our NC Superintendent has promised to change her system of over-testing. Students and teachers are still waiting.

“Today, she finally put forth her solution. She gave testing a new name: checkins.  It’s the same bad policy by a different name.

“Instead of keeping her promise and reducing the focus on tests, she just gave it a new name. 

Broken promises and name-calling are not solutions.”

Don’t be surprised if you see some action on testing from the General Assembly in the upcoming session.

The Digital Learning Plan

There is a multi-front effort in North Carolina to expand digital learning techniques, broadband Internet access to all North Carolina schools, and to transform the way teachers teach.

For years now, money for textbooks is no longer allotted just for textbooks. The line item is called Textbooks and Digital Materials.

The state has a Digital Learning Plan crafted by the Friday Institute for Educational Excellence. And in the 2016-17 short session, the General Assembly allocated $4 million recurring and $700,000 non-recurring dollars to help implement the plan.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, a Republican, has been particularly outspoken on the importance of digital learning, and it has been a hallmark of both his campaigns and his tenure as Lieutenant Governor.

It is almost certain we will see some action from the General Assembly on digital learning.

Pre-K

In the public education sphere, there is a quickly evolving conversation around the importance of what happens in children’s lives before kindergarten. NC Pre-K is the current state-funded, targeted program that serves 35 percent of North Carolina’s at-risk four-year-olds.

But many activists and education leaders are searching for ways to move towards universal pre-K.

The benefits of getting children in high-quality programs earlier have been well-documented. Research shows the earlier students enter a high-quality program, the greater the returns over that student’s life. A recent study by James Heckman, a Nobel Memorial prize winner in economics, found that high-quality pre-K programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13 percent per-year return on investment.

And studies from the Evaluation of NC-Prekindergarten Program out of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute have found that NC Pre-K participants have made greater developmental and academic gains than would be expected for normal growth.

State funding for NC Pre-K, including lottery receipts, has fallen from pre-recession levels. By the 2015-16 school year, funding had dropped to about $140 million from $180 million in the 2008-09 school year.

So some communities are trying to find other ways to fund pre-K. The week before Christmas, school system leaders and community members from Durham, Forsyth, and Buncombe County met to discuss just that. The discussion was hosted and facilitated by the NC Early Childhood Foundation.

Alexandra Sirota, director of the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center, explained at the event that federal and state dollars are constantly in flux and can be unreliable.

So in comes local financing. Attendees were encouraged to find “public, local, dedicated funding streams” — meaning long-range sources of funding that are specifically for early childhood services.

The three counties — which are each at different stages of the planning process — discussed local financing options for early education, like an item in their county’s budget, a bond for early childhood infrastructure, or using their local sales tax or property tax.

Tracy Zimmerman, executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, said that, at the state level, it’s not clear if pre-K will be a priority this legislative session.

But she says that, at least in North Carolina, the value of pre-K is clear.

“We have research about our early learning programs that shows the benefits last. The state’s investments in Smart Start and NC Pre-K have resulted in higher test scores, less grade retention and fewer special education placements through fifth grade,” she said. “The findings from the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy show positive effects grew or held steady over the years.”

A pre-K caucus created by Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, which includes education champions Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, and Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, will be focusing on the issue in the long session. And, during a podcast with Johnson prior to the election, he stated his belief in the importance of pre-K.

Hot politics

The evolution, and possible expansion, of choice under President Trump’s leadership and the leadership of Republican Superintendent Mark Johnson will be important to watch. Choice could expand across educational settings, like into pre-K or community colleges. Current programs — like charters and vouchers — might ramp up, or new choice options, like educational savings accounts, might be proposed.

We hope this article will serve as your guide to the hot issues in education we expect to be in play during this session.

In addition to the policies in play, we will also be watching and reporting on the legislative process and the politics. Is legislation rushed through or do citizens have an ample opportunity to weigh in? What will the relationship be like between the House and the Senate? And how does Governor Cooper weigh in on these issues? If the special sessions at the end of 2016 are any indication, party politics will be important this session.

What do you think the legislative priorities in education should be in 2017?

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.