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In education, a question of authority

Lawmakers at a joint appropriations education committee meeting Tuesday asked many questions of state education leaders but hinted at a bigger question: who has authority over the Department of Public Instruction and, more broadly, over all of the state’s schools? 

Both State Board of Education Chair Billy Cobey and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson presented at the meeting. Cobey laid out the Board’s funding requests and Johnson told members some of his own priorities.

But the lawsuit that could decide who has top responsibility for state schools was brought up multiple times throughout the morning.

Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham, first mentioned the lawsuit, filed by the State Board of Education against the state of North Carolina in December in an attempt to block House Bill 17, which would transfer many of the Board’s powers to Johnson. The case is set to be heard by a three-judge panel in June.

Michaux asked Cobey if the result of the lawsuit would affect the Board’s funding priorities — and if both the Superintendent and the Board support the priorities Cobey presented.

Cobey said the result of the lawsuit would not affect the budget requests, but that they were agreed upon before Johnson was elected.

“So our Superintendent would need to speak to that,” Cobey said. “But he is our Chief Administrative Officer and we have ongoing discussions about a number of topics … Our focus — the Board and our Superintendent — is the welfare of the children of our state. And I recognize there is a lawsuit, but that’s not going to affect our effort to give the best possible education to the children of our state.”

As Johnson came to the front of the room, he gave his own take on the evolving relationship between him and the Board. 

“I think we’re now learning more and more that there is separation between the Office of the State Superintendent and the State Board of Education,” Johnson said. “And I think we’ll work more and more to figure out where the important powers lie for each of those.”

Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, later asked Johnson to note any challenges he’s identified in carrying out his duties as Superintendent since he has transitioned into the role. 

Johnson said that, under current statute, the Board is really the administrative head of DPI. He said that’s why Cobey called on DPI staff multiple times to answer questions. He praised DPI staff, saying they’ve met with him to discuss his priorities and are willing to work together. And Johnson said he will, under a temporary restraining order on the implementation of House Bill 17, follow the old law and seek approval from the Board on any recommendations he has regarding “work chart changes or staffing.”

“That reduces the urgency,” Johnson said, “But that’s the system we’re working under.”

The budget requests of the State Board of Education were split up into six categories, totaling $534.6 million:

  • Paying our talented team ($69.2 million)
    Cobey thanked the legislators in the room for their attention to the importance of teacher compensation over the last couple years and asked them to consider becoming even more competitive with states in the region. 

    “Teacher salary increases are an important part of the recruitment and retention of quality classroom teachers,” Cobey said. “We are excited about the interest everybody has expressed related to increasing pay for our teachers.”

    He said the State Board sees moving North Carolina teachers’ average salaries to the national average as a non-concrete goal. Being first in the Southeast, he said, is a better target.

    Governor Roy Cooper’s teacher pay plan would reach that goal in three years and would meet the national average in five years — giving teachers a five percent raise this year and additional five precent the next.

    “It’s our position that we’re competing in our region with the states around us and we want to compete well in every respect,” Cobey said. 

    The compensation request is broken down into $54 million for teachers, $3.2 million for school building administration, and $12 million for other public school employees. Each of these would amount to a one percent increase. The document notes that an attached letter to the Governor “will support a sizable raise and a tiered Comprehensive Teacher Compensation System.”

  • Adding more talented members to the team ($143.3 million)
    Cobey said the Board wants to rebuild the school team outside of just the teacher and the principal.

    “Our schools need more adults to form a successful team to address all the daily needs of our students,” he said. 

    Cobey said that during the recession, many schools had to cut back on instructional support, assistant principals, and teacher assistants. 

    “The State Board of Education hopes we can start building back the important parts of the school’s team,” Cobey said.

    He emphasized getting more nurses into schools with an aim to move towards the nationally recommended ratio of school nurses to students of 1:750. In North Carolina, the ratio for 2015-16 was 1:1086, according to a task force that constructed suicide prevention recommendations for the legislature in December.  

    This request includes $61.8 million for teacher assistants, $33.7 million for assistant principals, $34.8 million for instructional support, $11.5 million for nurses, $1.3 million for child and family support teams, and $0.2 million for Troops to Teachers.

  • Enhancing the skills of the team ($29.5 million)
    This category translates to professional development. Cobey stressed the importance of continuous professional development opportunities, mentorships, and instructional coaching.

    The breakdown in this category is $12.5 million for general professional development, $4 million for behavioral support services, $12 million for Home Base professional development, and $1 million for recruitment and retention.

  • Enhancing the classroom experience for teachers and students ($344.7 million)
    A variety of initiatives and needs fall under this category, from digital learning to district and school transformation. 

    Cobey highlighted a few of the 12 areas within this request category. Forty-eight million dollars for textbooks and digital learning, he said, is something the Board knows is necessary. 

    “While we know we need over $48 million increase for textbooks and resources, any funding will keep us moving in right direction,” Cobey said. 

    Cobey also said the Board has heard from school districts who need more support in creating digital environments. He thanked the legislature for the $4.7 million allocated for the start of the implementation of the Board’s digital plan, saying it made a difference in professional development and laying the foundations needed to bring classrooms up to par in a digital age. 

    Cobey also spoke of the need for additional funding to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools.

    “We’re asking for $15.1 million to help us put effective turnaround specialists in our lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools,” he said. “We thank you for your support for innovative school reform efforts like cooperative and innovative schools and the restart schools.”

    Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, asked what he described as a “conceptual question” about focusing on the lowest-achieving schools. Blackwell said he didn’t understand why schools in the other 45 percent of the bottom half of performance shouldn’t be targeted instead.

    “Why pick the hardest nut to crack?” Blackwell said. “Why not fix some of the easier problems?”

    DPI’s chief academic officer Maria Pitre-Martin reminded Blackwell that there is a statewide system of support in each of the eight regions of the state that provides additional support to the schools. Pitre-Martin said the very lowest-performing schools often have the highest needs — whether they are academic, social, or health-related.

    The specifics of the category are as follows: $46.9 million for instructional supplies, $84.6 million for school building tech support, $6.5 million for the Uniform Education Reporting System, $6 million for more useful instructional content on Home Base, $48 million for textbooks/digital learning, $20 million for child nutrition, $110 million for children with special needs, $15.1 million for district and school transformation, $2.7 million for CTE certifications, $4 million for Cooperative and Innovative high schools, $0.8 million for NC Check-In’s (previously known as Interim Assessments), and $0.1 million for the NC Procurement Alliance.

  • Supporting for results ($17.1 million)
    This request includes funding for the expansion of the state’s three residential schools: the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, the N.C. Eastern School for the Deaf in Wilson, and the N.C. School for the Deaf in Morganton.

    “Each of these needs has been shared with us by personnel working directly with students on a daily basis,” Cobey said. 

    DPI’s chief of staff Adam Levinson said the funding will be directed towards the enhancement of specialized staff, the preparation of additional students, and some STEM programming. 

    This category includes $11.4 million for DPI expansion, $4.9 million for residential school expansion, and $0.8 million for licensure renewals. 

  • Investing in what works 
    Under this category, the document reads “make pre-K a part of public schools and expand funding.” It goes on to note that funding for pre-K currently falls under the Department for Health and Human Services, so no specific dollar request is attached. The document says the item will be expanded on in the letter that goes with the expansion budget request.

Many committee members asked about the issue of classroom size requirements — which is the theme of a bill currently going through the legislative process

After school districts statewide expressed concerns with the lack of flexibility for staff funding and the rapid need for more classroom space and teachers, House Bill 13 was introduced in the hopes of fixing those short-term problems. It has passed the House but has not yet been heard in the Senate.

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

DPI’s Chief Academic Officer Philip Price, who retires effective March 1, said that flexibility has existed since 1985. Under this practice, that flexibility is often used to fund program enhancement teacher positions for subjects like physical education, music, and art.

But committee members were curious as to why local school districts spend money allocated to reduce class sizes for other things — and whether the State Board told them to do so.

“Has the State Board ever issued any instruction or guidance to local school districts that the funds we sent them for K-3 could be spent in other places?” Barefoot said. 

Price explained that the Board’s policy measure reflects the General Assembly’s legislation. 

“The funding is going to classroom teachers, and the flexibility allowed to the district is outlined in statute,” Price said. 

Price said exactly how the allotted funds are used is up to local school districts.

“The funding that goes to the school districts is funded in total,” Price said. “… It is the school district and local board’s responsibility to make sure they adhere to the state guidelines, and the state laws, and the State Board policies. But they place the teachers and hire the combination of teachers that are necessary to meet the needs of their particular school system. “

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Moore, expressed frustration with how school districts use funds. He said, in the local school districts’ budgets, he has seen funds that the state allocated to reduce class sizes used for classroom teachers, for program enhancement teachers, and for “others.”

Tillman said he wants to track abuse of the system and wants to know how much money is spent in each of those categories.

“It’s sort of a running joke that we can go ahead and exceed that by five or six,” Tillman said. “What is the punishment? Nothing. So what holds you to doing exactly what the legislation says you will do and reduce those class sizes.”

Price said DPI only knows the teacher allotment in full, not by specifics.

“The legislation gives guidance on what the requirements need to be related to the class sizes, individual class sizes, and system-wide averages,” Price said. 

Johnson shared some of the things he hopes to move forward during his leadership. He started with sharing the importance he finds in preparing students for post-secondary education and workforce readiness. 

“Every student should be able to reach their American dream, and the best way to do that is through education,” Johnson said. “Whether it is vocational or college prep, I’ll be bringing to you innovative ways that we can seamlessly connect K-12 with the community college system and get students into jobs.”

Johnson stressed his excitement for digital learning, applauding the legislature for developing the state into a leader in high-speed Internet connectivity in schools. But he said he wants to make sure teachers have access to quality professional development that helps them use technology effectively. 

“We’re talking about a workforce of 100,000 people — 100,000 people that we can’t just throw devices at and say, ‘Go use them,'” he said. “We need to strategically look at what will be the best training opportunities for them.”

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Bertie, who represents many eastern rural counties, asked what Johnson is doing to address the challenges students in her district may have with a lack of Internet connectivity at home. 

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Smith-Ingram said. “I’m very concerned that we are leaving (behind) the population of students who need it the most…with a rapid launch of classroom technology and innovation.”

Johnson said he hopes that’s an issue the General Assembly will take on, and that he will do everything he can to make sure a potential digital divide doesn’t worsen the existing achievement gap.

In response to a question from Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guildford, Johnson acknowledged the reality of that achievement gap. He said he hopes digital learning will play a huge role in minimizing the gap through personalized learning. Johnson added that talent in the classroom and getting books in the hands of parents before kindergarten to help with literacy early on are two other strategies to reduce the gap.

“Everything I’m doing begins with urgency, with ownership, with innovation,” Johnson said. 

The House K-12 Education committee met directly after this meeting ended and gave a favorable report to an amended version of House Bill 6, which establishes a task force to review and develop a new funding formula for K-12 education. The bill will be taken up tomorrow in the House. 

Two amendments were added to the bill. One of the amendments was from Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, to give the task force a full year to study the subject matter and to report its findings. The other amendment was from Rep. Bert Jones, R-Caswell, but was presented by Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, and requires the task force to have at least one member from the minority party of both the House and the Senate.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a chair of the committee, prepared two versions of an amendment that would have added local superintendents, county commissioners, and school finance officers to the 18-legislator task force. The additional members wouldn’t have been able to vote. 

However, neither amendment passed. Horn added that the task force can create an advisory committee with the local representatives. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.