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Legislative preview: General Assembly Long Session

The long session of the General Assembly officially got underway last week, but that was mostly just pomp and circumstance. Starting tomorrow, lawmakers really get to work, coming up with a budget for the next two years and sifting through a slew of bills to decide how policy and law will change in North Carolina. 

Here’s what you have to look forward to. 

A new order

For the first time since EducationNC began covering the General Assembly in 2015, the Republicans no longer have a supermajority in the House or Senate. That could have big implications for how things unfurl this session. 

First, a primer on what that means. 

North Carolina has a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, and a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Prior to this session, the Republicans had a supermajority, which meant that any legislation the governor decided to veto could easily be saved by an overriding vote of the supermajority. Essentially, that left the governor and legislative Democrats without any bargaining power or the ability to effectively intervene if they didn’t like something the Republicans proposed. 

Now that’s over. If the governor decides to veto something, Republicans will have to get some Democrats on their side if they want to override the veto. This gives both the governor and Democratic lawmakers more leverage to affect policy. Expect to see more negotiation between the General Assembly and the governor’s office and between legislative Democrats and Republicans. 

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a powerful lawmaker when it comes to education, says the new balance of power will definitely impact how things work at the General Assembly, particularly when it comes to the partisan rancor that sometimes characterizes legislative debate.

“Hopefully it will settle down a little bit,” he said. 

He noted, in particular, when Democrats were shut out of the budget process during last year’s short session. Republicans introduced the budget document in a way that did not allow amendments to be added, meaning Democrats were mostly only able to complain from the sidelines without being able to do anything beyond voting up or down. That was the downside. The upside was that the budget process moved quickly and the short session was actually relatively short. 

Horn said he was happy with how the budget came out, but he was unhappy with the process. 

“The fact that we don’t have a supermajority will impact that,” he said. “But make no mistake, I’m not a process guy, I’m an outcomes guy.” 

What he meant is that just because a process is good doesn’t mean the results will be. He is far more concerned with effective outcomes, though he said that in the legislature, the process remains important. 

Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, called the budget process during the short session “the low water mark in how to get along and have productive discussions across the aisle.”

“I suspect that there will be an impact,” he said of the Republicans’ loss of its supermajority, “and I hope that the result will be more collaboration and conversation.”

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, is less optimistic that the new balance of power will have a calming influence on the legislature. 

“I think that we will have just as much controversy and disagreement in this session as we’ve had in other sessions,” he said. “I actually think that this year it might be about other issues than education. I’m kind of hopeful that we’ll be able to do some decent education stuff and not just be having partisan battles over education issues.”

The budget

Back in 2017, the General Assembly passed its last two-year budget. That included $9,046,403,622 for the Department of Public Instruction in 2017 and $9,425,109,426 in 2018. 

In the short session last year, lawmakers added an additional $167,847,276 for 2018 for the Department of Public Instruction. 

The way the budget process works is this: First, the governor puts out his budget. Then either the House or the Senate proposes its budget (they swap turns going first) before the other chamber puts out its proposal. Then negotiations start.

The idea behind this is for the final budget to be some amalgam of the three, but in practice, that’s not necessarily the case. Even when Republican Pat McCrory sat in the governor’s seat, the General Assembly usually went its own way on the budget. Now with a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, the General Assembly has been even less likely to incorporate his budget suggestions. And the governor has had dramatically different proposals than Republican lawmakers when it comes to things like teacher pay, school safety, and other items. So, all of the topics that may come up this session will now become more complicated because the Republican legislature won’t have as easy of a time just ignoring the governor’s mansion. 

Every year, the Public School Forum of North Carolina puts out a top-ten list of education issues for the year. The number two spot on this year’s list is: “Target rural North Carolina’s unique education challenges.” And one of the ways the Forum thinks that should happen is through school finance reforms.

“It could actually become one of the most consequential years in our state’s history in terms of how public schools are funded,” Poston said. 

He pointed out the work of the Joint Legislative Task Force on School Finance Reform, as well as the work of the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, as potential game changers when it comes to making sure schools are funded adequately and equitably. 

The task force is looking at how to possibly revamp the manner in which schools are funded and, Poston said, has a report due out this year on the topic. Meanwhile, the Governor’s Commission is working to fulfill the spirit of the long-running Leandro case. 

The Leandro case started in 1994 when families from five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming North Carolina was not providing their kids with the same educational opportunities as students in better-off districts. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the case that the state’s children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” A later Supreme Court opinion agreed with a lower court that North Carolina had not lived up to that constitutional requirement for every student. 

Both sides in the case agreed in 2017 to have an independent consultant appointed to make recommendations on how to ensure quality education for every North Carolina child. Gov. Roy Cooper created a Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, composed of 17 members appointed by him, to work “in conjunction” with the consultant and come up with strategies to meet the Leandro requirements set out by the court in 2002.

The commission has been meeting since Nov. 2017 and has meetings scheduled through April of this year. After that, it’s expected to release a report. 

The timing of that could be fortuitous for school funding, Poston said. 

“Those two efforts together really look at the possibility of moving towards some sort of remedy or solution to the Leandro case at the same time as the General Assembly is meeting,” Poston said. “For us, we’re going to be pushing to make sure that adequacy and equity in funding is not lost in all of these moving parts. We don’t want to build just a better more efficient system without thinking about what we’re trying to achieve and where there might be gaps.” 

Teacher pay

Teacher pay is generally the biggest part of the pot when it comes to education budgeting, and the Republicans increased teacher pay for the second year in a row, though not without controversy. 

The final 2017 long session budget raised teacher salaries an average of 3.3 percent in the first year of the biennium and 9.6 percent over both years. Starting teachers got no pay raise under the proposal. The highest raises went to teachers with between 17 and 24 years of experience. In the short session budget, the numbers for 2018 were tweaked and teachers ended up getting slightly more, a 6.5 percent increase in 2018 instead of the planned 6.3 percent. Legislators also included raises for veteran teachers — those with 25 or more years of experience — who went from $51,300 a year in the original two-year budget to $52,000 in the short session budget. That change was significant mostly because Republican lawmakers are often criticized for not providing enough of a salary bump for veteran teachers. 

So, what to expect in the long session? Well, all indications are that raises will continue, though they may be less substantial. 

“The budget is going to be a major issue,” said Terry Stoops, vice president for research and director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation. “I don’t think we’re going to have the type of surplus revenue we’ve had in the past.” 

Last year there was a $356.7 million budget surplus, which gave lawmakers a lot of flexibility. The Fiscal Research Division of the General Assembly recently released a report stating that North Carolina has collected $188 million more in tax revenue than projected. But Stoops says he takes those kinds of announcements with “a grain of salt” and thinks lawmakers are going to have less wiggle room on teacher pay this session. 

“The Republican majority will have to decide exactly how they want to raise teacher pay,” he said. “They’ve signaled their desire to raise teacher pay, but they may not be able to do so within the current constraints of the budget revenue.”

If true, that could set up a contentious debate between Republicans, who are loathe to raise taxes, and Democrats, who have less of a problem with higher taxes for things such as education. 

The State Board of Education wants to see the teacher pay increases continue and has expressed desire to see North Carolina move up to the top two or three spot in the Southeast when it comes to teacher pay. 

Cecilia Holden, the legislative and community affairs director at DPI, said part of the conversations around teacher recruitment and retention will have to take into account the new generation of teachers coming up in the system. 

“We want to start looking at compensation models from a teacher’s perspective, to also include options that better reflect the desires of the new millennial population,” she said. “What that looks like can be made up of a lot of different things.”

She said in addition to competitive salary, the Board wants to see chances for “learning and development” for teachers, mentors, and “a sense of purpose.”

“It could mean more advanced roles for teachers and on-going professional growth, among other things,” she said. “This generation may be less inclined to stay in the teaching profession until retirement, which means they may be more influenced by money upfront than by the expectation of a comfortable pension. Rather than a one-size-fits-all, should we be offering a menu of choices, recognizing people are motivated by different things?”

 She doesn’t expect this to be solved during the long session, but she is hopeful to see conversation underway. 

According to Drew Elliot, communications director for DPI, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson is also advocating for more teacher pay increases, though he added that it wasn’t as simple as just raising salaries. 

“We’ve got to make the profession better,” he said. “It’s not just the pay. It’s professional development and a lot of other things.”

Elliot said that Johnson will be coming up with a more comprehensive legislative priorities document in the next few weeks. 

Matt Ellinwood, an education policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center, said he expects teacher pay increases as well, but that the Justice Center hopes raises will include more for the veteran teachers who haven’t benefited as much in the past. The Justice Center also hopes lawmakers can bring back the extra pay that teachers used to get for having a master’s degree. 

Regardless of how exactly it shakes out, Horn said he expects to see teacher pay go up during the long session in some way.

“It’s part of the pipeline issue that we have,” he said. “We can’t attract and retain high quality teachers unless we expand the pool of high quality teachers.”

Principal pay

In the 2017 long session, the General Assembly completely revamped the state’s principal pay schedule and increased salaries for principals. 

They put $35.4 million into principal and assistant principal raises, giving an average 8.6 percent salary increase for principals and 13.4 percent salary increase for assistant principals over two years.

The budget passed during last year’s short session added an extra $12 million for principals, boosting principal pay by an average increase of 6.9 percent for 2018 alone.

All this extra money and changes to the schedule were meant to fix a dysfunctional principal pay schedule that EducationNC reported on extensively and bring North Carolina up from its rank as 50th in the nation for principal pay. 

There were some wrinkles in the new principal pay schedule, particularly when it came to a controversial hold harmless provision. While most principals received salary increases under the new pay plan, some did not. For those, there was a hold harmless provision that locked their salaries at what they were previously. But the hold harmless had an expiration date. That date was extended by one year in the short session budget last year. 

“First of all, we screwed that up,” Horn said. “We can’t continue to grandfather as an answer to the principal pay issue. We’ve got to solve it.”

So a fix to the hold harmless provision is definitely on the table, as well as likely further increases to principal pay. 

Holden said that fixing the hold harmless — rather than just continuing to extend it — will require continued increases in principal pay by lawmakers.

“The General Assembly has made significant investments in the last couple of years; however, at the end of the day, the hold harmless comes down to money,” she said. 

With growth being a part of the principal pay calculation, principals with a decrease in growth may end up being held harmless as well, she said. Every year, as principal pay increases and more veteran principals retire, Holden said that more and more principals should no longer need the hold harmless, but to really eradicate it all together would mean budgeting enough money that no principal would make less under the new principal pay schedule than they did under the old one.   

Elliot said that Johnson, too, hopes to see more money for principals this session. 

“We’ve made great strides on principal pay, but we were starting from a woeful position on principal pay as well,” he said. 

Brenda Berg, president & CEO of BEST NC (Business for Educational Success and Transformation NC), said her organization also wants to see more money for principals, an issue she has championed for years. BEST NC is described on its website as a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of over 100 business leaders with a focus on making education in North Carolina the best in the nation. Berg praised the increases in principal pay over the past two years, but she said more is needed. 

“That brought us from below the worst in the Southeast,” she said. “If you can get below the worst, we were below the worst.” 

Horn agrees that more progress needs to be made. 

“We’ve got principals in schools who are ultimately responsible for hundreds and sometimes over a thousand kids, and we’re paying them like crap?” 

School safety

Holden said a top priority of the State Board is school safety and support positions. These positions became a huge focus of the General Assembly, due in part to the House Select Committee on School Safety

The committee was formed in reaction to a series of school shootings that happened in other parts of the country, but its work became all the more important after a shooting at Butler High School in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system this fall.

The House Select Committee on School Safety approved its report to the full General Assembly in December, asking among other things for an expansion of the school safety grants from the short session. Those grants included money for school support personnel, such as nurses and counselors.

“School safety and school support positions was clearly a top budget request of the Board for the long session,” Holden said, though she added that school nurses are likely the most critical element of that. “If you look at the return on investment, it’s a net savings,” she said. 

The recommended standard for school nurses is one school nurse for every 750 students. A report from the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Program Evaluation Division found that in North Carolina, that ratio is more like one nurse for every 1,086 students, and that it would take about $45 million to reach the recommended standard. 

Ellinwood agrees that school support personnel are essential and said the Justice Center hopes to see improvements in that area. 

 “It seems to me like all of the school personnel and superintendents and people they’re bringing up to talk to that [school safety] committee are sending a clear signal that we need more mental health support,” he said. 

He said the state needs an “adequate” ratio of counselors, therapists, and others to meet school safety needs, but that doing so would require a legislative commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars. 

“It feels like something’s got to get done around school safety,” Ellinwood said. 

Advanced teaching roles

Both Horn and Berg said advanced teaching roles will be important during this long session of the General Assembly. 

These are roles that provide a path to advancement for teachers without them having to leave the profession to become administrators. They include additional compensation, leadership opportunities, professional development, and more. 

The General Assembly budgeted $8.2 million in 2017-18 and $1.7 million in 2018-19 to give grants to counties to pilot advanced teaching roles. Until recently, the state had given out six grants, but at the State Board of Education this month, the State Board approved additional grants for Bertie County, Hertford County, Halifax County, and Lexington City schools.

The goal of the pilots is to allow districts to test out advanced teaching roles — such as teacher leaders — and differentiated pay in an effort to both sustain the effort when funds run out and see if strategies can be scaled up to the rest of the state. 

“The thing I’m most energized about is advanced roles,” Berg said. Her organization has been a champion of advanced teaching roles. 

Horn said he hopes to expand advanced teaching roles during the long session. 

“The two goals of the legislation are critically important for quality education over the long term. One: allow high quality teachers to stay in the classroom and advance in their careers. The other one is a change in the management structure inside the schoolhouse,” he said. 

Horn said he thinks that will directly impact student outcomes, on which he said he is very focused. 

Holden said the State Board would love to see an expansion of funds for advanced teaching roles so the state can offer grants for more districts to participate. The Board would also like legislation that allows any district to apply to the State Board to be granted this status where appropriate, regardless of additional funding, she said. Certain flexibilities come with being an advanced teaching roles pilot that would benefit participating districts, she said.

Non-budget issues

There are a variety of other issues the legislature is likely to tackle, ranging from school facilities to performance grades and more. Here is a breakdown of some of these issues. 

School bond

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, sent out a press release before the holidays signaling his intention to file a bond bill to go before voters that would include $1.9 billion for education construction needs. That would include $1.3 billion for K-12 capital construction and $300 million each for the UNC System and for North Carolina community colleges. 

Earlier this month, Moore’s office sent out a press release that included the text of his conversation with Jonah Kaplan of ABC-11 in Raleigh. In that text, he captured his feelings about the need for a school construction bond. 

“The thing that I’ve been hearing more and more is that we need to do something about school construction,” Moore said. “Cleveland County is right on the state line with South Carolina, and I can drive just a few miles to the South and see some of the brand new schools being built across the state line. When I saw a lot of that it really struck home that we need to invest even more in school construction.”

He went on to say that in poor, rural areas in particular, there are schools with failing heating and cooling systems, as well as bad plumbing, and that the counties taking care of these schools don’t have the money to build new facilities. 

“So this is an opportunity to use the resources of the state to come in and do that. We can have great teachers, we can have great resources, but if we don’t have the best facilities available we are not doing our students a service,” he said. 

Just last week, Moore and other lawmakers began a statewide tour to discuss the bond. The first stop was Erwin Elementary in Harnett County, where Moore talked a little more about the importance of focusing on rural North Carolina. 

“I think it’s important that as we do this tour and as we start this tour, that we do so in a school in a rural part of the state,” Moore said. “A part of our state that has a lot of opportunity but also has some challenges. I will tell you that the issues facing a town like Erwin are very similar to the issues facing a town like Rutherfordton in the western part of the state. There are many more things in common than things that are different. One of the things with this bond proposal is to make sure that as we grow as a state … that rural infrastructure is not left behind. That rural North Carolina gets its fair share of this school construction money.”

At that tour stop, Moore also changed up some of the details of the bond he is proposing, saying that it would include about $1.5 billion for new K-12 schools, and about $200 million each for the UNC System and Community College System. 

This isn’t the first time such a bill has been proposed. The House tried and failed to do so back in 2017. When lawmakers heard a report on school construction back then, they learned that the facility needs in counties around the state was close to $8 billion.

That makes Ellinwood uneasy. 

“I was always a little nervous about the $1.9 billion because it feels like our needs are really escalating,” he said.

That $8 billion number was for the 2015-16 school year, and a lot has changed since then, including damage from hurricanes. 

“I’m worried this isn’t going to actually do much,” Ellinwood said, adding, “I just don’t know how much appetite there is to go over that $1.9 billion number.” 

Nevertheless, Ellinwood said he was excited to see Moore say he is putting forward the bill. 

Holden said the State Board is also in favor of additional school construction funds through the Needs-Based Public School Capital Funds and/or a school bond, though it would like to see flexibility to allow the money to be used for significant renovations, as well as new school construction. 

While the House has signaled its interest in tackling school construction before, it’s the Senate where the subject has trouble getting traction, Stoops said. This bill will at least spark a discussion. 

“If the House wants to put that kind of bond before voters, then they’re going to force the Senate to discuss how exactly the state is going to pay for the backlog in school facilities needs that I’m assuming everyone at this point recognizes exist.”

Meyer, too, said he was glad to hear the proposal put forth by Moore.

“I was heartened to hear the speaker’s call for a school bond issue,” he said. “I think that addressing school infrastructure needs is critical and an issue where we can find some strong bipartisanship. I hope that we will work together early in the session to put together a bond proposal and get it on the ballot as soon as possible.”

Low-performing schools

Meyer particularly wants to do something for low-performing schools this session. 

“I believe that we need to take a look at our low-performing schools and figure out are there things we can do to provide some type of support for all schools that are low-performing and not just a handful of them?”

Towards that end, Meyer said he and Horn will be pushing a bill on 11-month (instead of 10-month) extended-year teacher contracts for some teachers. Part of that bill will include providing such contracts for all teachers in low-performing schools.

This would be helpful for getting teachers to those schools, Meyer said. 

“You’d be making 10 percent more than in a standard school if you were on one of these contracts because you’d get paid that extra month which would be 10 percent more than just 10 months,” he said. “And it would give a low-performing school the ability to run a longer school year because you’d have all your teachers on 11-month contracts and you’d have additional time for professional development for teachers who are working with some of the most challenged kids.”

Meyer said it would cost about $250 million and would put about 40 percent of teachers on an extended-year contract in any given year. 

“It’s not a raise. It’s more pay for more work, but in terms of getting us to the national average, it would move us towards the national average,” he said. 

Another issue related to low-performing schools is what defines them. Presently, a low-performing school is one with a D or F that doesn’t meet or meets growth. This is something Holden said is on the State Board’s agenda. 

School Performance Grades are what ultimately decides whether a school gets a D or an F. Currently, the School Performance Grades are on a 15-point scale. That means that an 85 to 100 is an A, and so on down the scale. That 15-point scale is slated to turn into a 10-point scale next year. Tougher grading means more D and F schools. 

Additionally, the School Performance Grades are calculated using a formula that is heavily weighted towards academic achievement — how well students do on tests. It is 80 percent achievement and 20 percent academic growth. Critics argue that it is too heavily weighted towards achievement and that schools look a lot better when growth is taken into account more. They also say that growth is a more accurate measure of teaching than a test taken on one day a year. 

Holden said the State Board is advocating for keeping the 15-point scale. To change to a 10-point scale now would not be in the best interest of North Carolina’s brand and economic development opportunities, she said. Lowering report card grades through a change in the grading scale isn’t going to result in better outcomes and could lower school morale and chase away companies looking to relocate to the state, according to Holden.

In addition, she hopes to get traction with a conversation about the components of the school report card. She said the State Board doesn’t have the perfect solution for consideration but would like to see lawmakers open to options and best practices from other states and work with the State Board to bring forward recommendations for consideration next session.   

“The goal is to get the conversation going,” she said. 

Stoops agrees that all that is likely to happen this session on School Performance Grades is a discussion. 

“Mostly because I don’t think there will be much agreement on what the change should be,” he said. 

Calendar flexibility

Many different organizations are advocating for calendar flexibility, a topic made all the more urgent by the large number of school days missed this year due to hurricane damage. 

The state mandates two things when it comes to school calendars: how many days students must be in school and when districts can have class. 

The state says that students must be in school for a minimum of 185 days a year or 1,025 hours of instruction. It also says that schools can’t start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26, and they can’t end later than the Friday closest to June 11.

As it turns out, this creates a host of problems for our geographically diverse state. 

In the West, schools may unexpectedly miss a certain number of days each year due to snow. In the East, inclement weather — like hurricanes — forces students to miss school as well. But none of this is predictable. So, schools are often forced to jam in make-up days at odd times, like weekends, in order to get all the requisite school time in before the mandatory stop date of the year. Districts argue that if they had calendar flexibility — the ability to start and stop school when they think appropriate — then they could build make-up days into the school year to ensure that extreme measures don’t have to be taken to get kids the instruction that is mandated. 

Additionally, districts argue that calendar flexibility would allow them to align their calendars with local community colleges so that students would more easily be able to take advanced classes at these higher institutions. Those are just some of the issues presented by not letting districts have flexibility. 

And there is large-scale support for calendar flexibility. Back in 2015, a huge number of bills were filed to grant calendar flexibility to different school districts and even statewide. Those bills mostly went nowhere, though later sessions saw some bills gain traction. Still, none have ultimately cleared the General Assembly. There is even a bipartisan coalition of organizations that has been advocating for calendar flexibility for years. 

In the past, advocates of calendar flexibility argued that the tourism industry was holding up legislation because businesses that rely on student workers over the summer don’t want districts to cut into their season. 

Holden said she doesn’t think there is as much “consternation” in the industry as once noted. And she said that calendar flexibility can be a boon — aligning high schools with community college calendars, minimizing summer learning loss, allowing more flexibility in scheduling make-up days, and positioning students to more easily participate in fall sports. 

“What I’m told is there’s evidence that flexibility increases academic achievement,” she said. 

Ellinwood said that after the hurricane, the touristy parts of the state are the ones that now need calendar flexibility the most. 

“There’s always been a lot of support for calendar flexibility. It just can’t get through the Senate,” he said. 

The North Carolina School Boards Association says in its legislative agenda that the recent hurricanes illustrate the need for more flexibility: “Given North Carolina’s recent experiences with Hurricanes Florence, Michael and Matthew, along with numerous annual snowstorms, locally elected officials could better plan and prepare for weather-related school closings if they had more control to set local school calendars.”

It goes on to state that this flexibility is already available to charter schools and restart schools — traditional public schools granted charter-like flexibility. 

“It can positively impact student achievement,” the agenda states.

Giving districts flexibility would not only allow districts to align with community college calendars, but also to schedule first semester exams before winter breaks, the agenda states. Another issue with a lack of calendar flexibility is that winter exams come after winter break in some districts, meaning students have a substantial amount of time off before they actually have to take their crucial tests. 

School choice

School choice in North Carolina continues to grow, with new charter schools opening every year and the expansion of opportunity scholarship programs for low-income students and students with disabilities. In addition, during the last long session, the budget created an education savings account program (ESA), 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.

Stoops said there will likely be some more discussion about school choice programs, but he doesn’t anticipate much action.  

“We’ll see proposals, but I don’t think they’ll go very far,” he said. 

Ellinwood agrees there likely won’t be much movement on opportunity scholarships or charters, though he said if there is anything that happens, it will likely be in the budget. 

 “Things that couldn’t possibly override a veto could end up in the budget,” he said.

There are so many items in the budget that the governor would have to choose between getting items he likes or shooting down items he doesn’t like. It puts him in a bind in a way that single pieces of legislation do not. 

Brian Jodice, executive vice president of Parents For Educational Freedom North Carolina — which advocates for school choice options — said his organization is advocating for changes for which the parents served by school choice are pushing. 

“We always try to make sure whatever we push …  kind of bubbles up from families,” he said. 

One thing he’s heard from parents is that the $4,200 granted low-income families by the opportunity scholarship program isn’t necessarily enough to cover the full cost of attending a private school. 

“We can work creatively maybe this session to find some ways to expand that a little bit,” he said. 

Jodice said both the ESA and disabilities grant programs have waiting lists, and he would like to see additional money so that all the families who want to take part are able to. 

“All those programs do is help families with special needs find something that fits their families a little bit better,” he said. 

Lawmakers put some additional funding into the disabilities grant program last session. While that helped, Jodice said there is still a waitlist of families wanting to participate. 

Jodice said he would also like for lawmakers to think about forward-funding those programs in the base budget the way the legislature has with the regular opportunity scholarships program. 

“Forward funding those critical programs for families with students with special needs helps give them, and the schools they attend, the assurance that this support will be there for them in the future and new families to join both of those programs,” he said in an e-mail. 

The General Assembly added $10 million increases to the base budget of the state for every year leading up to the 2028-29 school year for the regular opportunity scholarship program. Last year, the state had budgeted about $44 million for the program. In the 2028-29 school year, the funding will be up to $145 million. It will continue at that rate every year thereafter.

Poston said the Public School Forum plans to continue to be vocal on school choice. 

“We have been advocating for some time to see better accountability and transparency in these various school choice programs, particularly the private school voucher [opportunity scholarship] programs, virtual charter schools, even the Innovative School District,” he said.

He also said the Forum is going to pay more attention to charter schools.

“One area under school choice we have talked about less but I think we need to talk about more is the impact of charter schools,” he said. “The landscape is very, very different now than it was just a few years ago.”

Rhonda Dillingham, the executive director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools, said one area she’d like to see the legislature address is charter school funding. 

“We get about three quarters of the money that district schools get because we don’t get funding for facilities, buses, or food,” she said. 

Charter schools do get transportation money from the state for every child but no funding to purchase actual vehicles. 

She said it would be great if lawmakers could create avenues for charter schools to have some more access to funding. She noted NC ACCESS (Advancing Charter Collaboration and Excellence for Student Success) grants as one particularly helpful avenue that charter schools are already taking advantage of. 

These are grants through the federal Department of Education meant to help new and current charter schools better serve underserved populations of students, such as homeless, non-native English speakers, students with disabilities, or economically disadvantaged students, according to a press release from North Carolina Public Schools. 

DPI is seeking proposals from charters schools in North Carolina who want part of $26.6 million in federal funding through this grant program. DPI plans to award five-year grants of $600,000 to 10 schools this year and 40 more in the next four years, according to the press release. 

Dillingham said she would also like to see a reconstitution of a charter school transportation grant pilot program active in the 2017-18 school year. The program wasn’t renewed by the General Assembly for the 2018-19 school year. 

 “If we’re going to talk about this issue of access for all students, then this is an issue,” she said. 

One of the criticisms of charter schools is that they don’t serve some of the most needy populations, and Dillingham said that programs that help charters provide transportation would address that issue. The grant program was focused specifically on helping charter schools serve lower-income students.

Dillingham also said she was surprised when the school safety grants came out last year that charter schools were not eligible to receive funding for the purchase of school safety equipment. She would like to see that change. 

“You have schools like East Wake Academy (Wake County), Phoenix Academy (High Point) — they are just two that I know of who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars beefing up their schools’ security by purchasing different types of school safety equipment,” she said. “They had to take the money out of their school operational budget whereas district schools could apply for school safety funding.” 

The teacher dimension

Teachers have always been a big part of discussions around the General Assembly, but during the short session, they had a much bigger impact. 

On the first day of session, a huge teacher rally descended on Raleigh, including thousands of educators from western and eastern North Carolina and everywhere in between. At least 40 of the 125 school districts in the state cancelled classes. Teachers dressed in red shirts carried signs and demanded better pay and more resources from legislators. 

Some have credited the influence of these teachers with the relative success of Democrats during the November election.

One group in particular, Red4EdNC, has led the pack. It’s a nonprofit organization composed of educators pushing for reform that favors the education profession. According to Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher who is on the board of advisors for the organization, the group has aligned itself with the North Carolina Association of Educators and supports the NCAE’s legislative agenda. 

The NCAE is advocating for these eight items:

  • Increase per-pupil funding to the national average within three years
  • Invest in the health and well-being of our students and make schools safer
  • Implement a multi-year professional compensation and benefits plan for all educators that is significant and livable and restore due process
  • Fix our crumbling schools and large class sizes with a statewide school construction bond
  • Repeal the raids on public school funding and other privatization efforts
  • Significantly overhaul or end the school grading system in favor of multiple indicators
  • Restore programs to boost NC’s teacher pipeline and district flexibility
  • No corporate tax cuts until per-pupil funding and teacher pay reach the national average

Click on the link above to the NCAE’s legislative priorities for more details. 

Other priorities

Here is a list of organizations with legislative priorities and links to what they’re looking for out of the long session. 

North Carolina School Boards Association

North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals’ Association

North Carolina Association of School Administrators


During the long session of the General Assembly, lawmakers budgeted $1,121,815,001 for 2017-18 and $1,141,757,845 for 2018-19 for the community college system. During the short session last year, the legislature budgeted an addition of almost 44 million dollars. That included more than $24 million in recurring dollars for salary increases and a total of almost $3 million for enrollment growth adjustments. 

One big item in the budget was almost $6.4 million recurring and a little more than $8 million nonrecurring in increased funding for short-term continuing education and workforce development. These funds are aimed at instruction and training that leads to industry credentials. 

That is also going to be a big issue for community colleges in the upcoming long session. The community college system put out a list of budget priorities for the System, the Association of Community College Presidents, and the NC Association of Community College Trustees (NCACCT). Not surprisingly, one of the top items is $11.5 million to “complete funding for short-term workforce training programs that lead to state-or industry-recognized credentials.”

The press release said this investment would put funding for these programs at the same level as academic programs at community colleges. 

“Our legislative agenda is tightly focused on workforce development. The state has substantial needs in this area. This is our expertise,” said Community College System President Peter Hans in a podcast. “The community colleges do so many things, so many roles and responsibilities, but workforce development is at the top of that list.” 

He said that workforce training has traditionally only been funded at two-thirds the level of traditional academic training. Meanwhile the state is experiencing a significant skills gap with many companies clamoring for more trained workers to fill open positions. Hans said there are people underemployed or even unemployed who could benefit from workforce training. 

“If they could upgrade their skills at community colleges, they would be able to fill those open positions, grow North Carolina’s economy while providing for themselves and their families, and that’s what community colleges can do for so many North Carolinians,” he said. 

Other items on the agenda include: 

  • $15 million to upgrade workforce development-focused information technology systems serving all 58 community colleges
  • $2.8 million to expand the Career Coach Program
  • $2.3 million to fund workforce-focused campuses for Forsyth Tech, Guilford Tech, Richmond Community College, and Wake Tech 

The press release also stated that the system is looking for salary increases to bring staff pay closer to the national average of $60,422. Currently, the average salary in North Carolina is $47,362 for full-time faculty, the press release stated. 

Community college faculty salaries in North Carolina rank 41st in the nation,” said NCACCT Chairman John Watts in the press release. “Because our salaries are falling so far behind, it is extremely difficult to recruit and retain highly-qualified faculty in critical workforce training areas, including health care fields like nursing and high-tech jobs such as automotive technology, computer-aided drafting/manufacturing and engineering.”

Another issue Hans talked about in the podcast was simplifying residency determinations for community college students. The state has a Residency Determination Service that tries to figure out whether students are in-state or out-of-state when it comes to tuition. 

“It’s a very bureaucratic process, and a lot of our potential students are caught up in that process,” Hans said. 

Residency determinations for both traditional universities and community colleges are the same, but the two serve vastly different populations. The barriers presented by the residency determination often lead to potential community college students not enrolling, Hans said.

“We’re talking with the General Assembly, we’re talking with the other education sectors to try to think through how it can be improved, how we can lessen the burden on the students,” he said. “Think about if you come from a family who has moved around a lot, or you’re estranged from your parents yet you’re being required to provide all this documentation on what your parents are doing, their residence … there are so many different scenarios, really heartbreaking scenarios where people are getting caught up in this dragnet.” 

David Shockley, president of Surry Community College and the NC Association of Community College Presidents, said in the press release that community colleges are losing more than 5,000 potential students each year because of the complexity of the residency determination system. 

“We understand and appreciate the need for consistency in residency determinations, but we must balance this need with ensuring that any unnecessary barriers to enrollment are minimized,” he said.
Read our series on residency determination here.

This month, the State Board of Community Colleges also approved a series of legislative priorities that it will be sharing in common with the University of North Carolina System, something that is being done for the first time this year. One of the priorities includes transfer student scholarships, which will be used to incentivize community college students to finish their degree before transferring to a four-year institution.

Mary Shuping, director of government relations for the system, said this is important because less than one-third of community college students actually finish their degrees before transferring. 

“But if they do, they do better, sometimes better than the native students,” she said. “We hope to keep those students with us to get that associate’s degree.”

The full list of priorities include:

  1. Summer scholarships for UNC and NCCCS students
  2. Transfer student scholarships
  3. Improve credit transfer for community college and military-affiliated students
  4. Expand the availability of Open Educational Resources (OER)

Read details about the priorities here. 

Follow me on Twitter @agranadoster and check out my column Grumblings and Rumblings for all the latest ed news.

What are your education priorities?

Now, we want to know what your education priorities are for this long session. Sign up below to join our new project — the People’s Session — when it launches in a few weeks. You’ll have the chance to weigh in on policy statements and submit your own.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.