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Questions of process plague education appropriations committee

The House unveiled portions of its two-year education budget proposal at an education appropriations committee Thursday morning and gave it a favorable vote by the end of the day, but Democratic lawmakers criticized the process set forth by Republican leaders.

The budget presentation did not include information on teacher or principal pay — those proposals are expected next week, along with the rest of the full House spending plan. But the presentation did include multiple pages of budget items and policy provisions that Democrats were hard-pressed to parse having only seen it for the first time Thursday morning. Nevertheless, Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said the committee would take a vote on the proposal later that same day, with only about an hour allowed for lawmakers to decide if they wanted to submit amendments. 

“I’m not ready to do that, even if I had two hours today to do it,” said Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham.

Later in the day, Democrats held a press conference where House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, explained why his party was holding a press conference even though a full budget was not yet available. He said this weekend would be the only chance lawmakers have to talk to their constituents back home before voting on the budget, which is expected to go through full House appropriations and come up for a final vote in the House next week.

“We didn’t get to see the budget until you got to see it this morning,” Jackson told reporters. “They have the budget written, but it’s still being held in secret. So we’ll see it all Tuesday.” 

Horn, however, said in an interview that the process should not be so shocking to Democrats. 

“Did they admit that the process really wasn’t any different than when they were in charge?” he asked. 

Even without teacher or principal pay, the committee had no shortage of items in the education budget.

The House budget would fully fund enrollment growth and would provide more than $10 million in the first year in non-recurring additional dollars for textbooks and digital resources. 

The Digital Learning Plan would receive a $2.22 million boost in both years of the biennium.

The proposed budget reduces state funding for central office administration by 5.3 percent in the first year and 10.5 percent in the second year, equating to a $5 million reduction in the first year and $10 million reduction in the second year. 

The Department of Public Instruction would receive $10 million in the first year and $21.7 million in the second year to modernize its school business systems. 

The budget originally gave $9.8 million in each year in additional funds for the advanced teaching roles three-year pilot program. The program is one where school districts develop structure and payment methods that would elevate some teachers to advanced teaching roles. However, an amendment offered later in the afternoon took $620,000 away from this program to help fund an expanded provision in the budget related to Innovation Zones.

The budget gives $80,000 additional in each year of the biennium for the Principal Preparation Grants Program to administer grants to programs that offer school leadership development. 

The budget provides funds to restart the Teaching Fellows program, which 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. 

The House is doubling down on the Senate’s budget, which allocated funding to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to hire positions accountable only to him. The House budget gives $921,583 to him in both years of the biennium to hire up to 10 positions that report to him and will be exempt from the Human Resources Act. The Senate budget proposal was half that. In addition, the House budget gives Johnson’s office $300,000 for legal fees on active lawsuits, as did the Senate’s budget plan. 

Johnson is party to a lawsuit the State Board of Education is engaged in over legislation passed during a special session in December that transferred some of the State Board’s power to the superintendent. That suit will be heard in court in late June.

Two amendments by Rep. Cynthia Ball, D-Wake, attempted to take money from both items related to the Superintendent’s office. One amendment tried to cut the number of positions given to Johnson in half, and the other tried to strip the funding of legal fees. Both amendments would have reallocated those funds to increase the amount of money going to textbooks and digital resources. Both failed. 

“The teachers, the area superintendents I’ve met with, the principals to a point say that they need more resources for digital and for textbooks,” she said in the afternoon press conference. 

However, she added that she was not trying to single out the Superintendent in particular. The rules of the committee when discussing the budget was that no new money for amendments could be added or taken away from areas of the budget other than education. As a consequence, Ball said she had to find the money somewhere in the education budget. She said the cut to Johnson’s positions would have put the House budget in line with the Senate budget. Of the legal fees, she said, “I also don’t think we need to be having so many lawsuits.” 

Staff at the Superintendent’s office said he was unavailable this week for interviews. His spokesman, Jonathan Felts, released the following statement to WRAL Friday:

“The Superintendent’s office communicated the following legislative priorities to the General Assembly at the start of this session. Funding:

  • for greater Education Finance Transparency in NC Public Education;
  • for State Superintendent Operations;
  • for Teaching Fellows;
  • for Early Childhood Education;
  • and for Achievement School District Startup Funds.”

“The Superintendent also requested funding for for an objective 3rd party review for best practices at DPI, as he advocated for across North Carolina in 2016,” Felts wrote. “We appreciate the efforts made by the House and Senate to meet these funding challenges. Greater efficiency at DPI means we can better serve the needs of public education in North Carolina.”

The proposed budget also gives the Superintendent $1 million to be used for an audit of the Department of Public Instruction. Johnson oversees the department and was critical of it during his election campaign last year. 

In addition, the budget cuts the following positions from DPI: 

  • Education Diagnostician I 
  • Education/Development Aide II 
  • Education/Development Aide II 
  • Program Assistant V
  • Chief Performance Officer
  • Accountant
  • Education Consultant II
  • Business Technology Analyst

All of those positions are presently vacant except for the business technology analyst position.

The House budget does not, however, eliminate as much from DPI as the Senate budget. In addition to eliminating specific positions, Senate lawmakers wanted to trim the department budget by 25 percent.

The House budget also explicitly funds the Eastern North Carolina STEM program, a program that was a high-profile cut at the last minute from the Senate budget. Democratic lawmakers said the Senate process did not allow for adequate review of the amendment that cut the program. 

The House budget provides an additional $50 million for the opportunity scholarship program — $20 million in 2017-18 and $30 million in 2018-19. The program gives qualifying students public money to attend private schools.  The budget also provides about $587,000 in the first year and $314,500 in the second year for an evaluation of the program and the success of its students.

Rep. Rosa Gill, D-Wake, tried to pass an amendment in the afternoon that would take the additional opportunity scholarship funding and use it to help pay for class size reductions, but that amendment failed. She said in the press conference that it did not make sense to increase funding for the opportunity scholarship program when all the available slots are filled and the program has a reserve of funds. Plus, she added that the state does not know how well the program works.

“If you don’t evaluate a program, you don’t know how effective it is,” she said. “And there’s been no evaluation of the opportunity scholarship or the special needs scholarship programs.”

If it had passed, Gill’s amendment might have helped make up for something absent from the budget: dedicated funding for enhancement teachers. Funding for these teachers — who head subjects like art, PE, and music — is something many districts have been vying for given the strict class size restrictions slated to go into full effect in 2018-19, the second year of the biennium. Those restrictions eliminate the financial flexibility districts use to fund enhancement teachers. Senate leaders have promised it will fund those teachers after a study of the state’s needs. The House budget also includes a provision that directs districts to report on building capacity limitations related to the class size restrictions. 

“It does appear…that we are pitting the kindergarten teachers against the art teachers once again,” Jackson said during the press conference, meaning that schools would have to choose between extra-curricular teachers and core teachers if they do not ultimately receive dedicated funding for extra-curricular teachers. 

In addition to items with money attached, the special provisions portion of the budget presentation included important policy changes, some of which were covered in bills filed or passed in the House earlier in the session. 

One provision changes the state’s School Performance Grades. Currently, the grades are distributed to schools based on a formula that takes into account student achievement and student academic growth. It is weighted 80 percent achievement and 20 percent growth. The House budget provision would no longer have a single grade, but would instead replace that with two grades — one for achievement and one for growth. The provision would also put the school performance grades on a 15-point scale permanently. The grades are currently on a 15-point scale, but were intended to move to a 10-point scale eventually. 

Another budget provision sets up a task force to study education funding reform. There have been several discussions about setting up this task force which would explore the potential benefits of a weighted-student formula in education funding. 

Another, sure-to-be controversial provision in the House proposal could potentially expand the number of schools that participate in the Achievement School District (ASD). 

The Achievement School District bill was passed during the 2016 General Assembly short session. At the heart of the legislation is the creation of a district which will include five low-performing schools from around the state. The schools, which are yet to be named, could be turned over to for-profit charter operators. 

The legislation also gave districts that participate in the ASD the opportunity to pick up to three other low-performing schools in their districts to join an Innovation Zone. Schools in this zone would have charter-like flexibility but would continue to be managed by the school district. 

The House budget changes the name of the Achievement School District to the North Carolina Innovative School District (ISD). It also adds a provision that says if a district participating in the ISD has more than 35 percent of its schools identified as low-performing, then all of those schools could become part of an Innovation Zone should the district elect that option. However, another provision initially said that if a low-performing school in an Innovation Zone does not exceed growth for two continuous years, it will be forced to join the ISD. That means those schools would no longer be under the control of the district and could be turned over to for-profit charter operators. Those provisions together could end up increasing the number of schools that become part of the ISD. 

They were weakened somewhat by Representative Gill, who successfully passed an amendment that would give those low-performing schools in the Innovation Zone five years to prove their progress. If, in the last two years of that five year period, those schools do not exceed growth, then they would be required to join the ISD. 

Horn, a chair of the committee, called a break in the morning after the initial presentation was complete. Horn asked the Democratic members to raise their hands if they planned to have amendments. Nobody did so. Horn said that members would have until 11 a.m. to tell staff if they had any amendments, and then the committee would reconvene to consider those amendments, debate, and vote on the budget proposal in the afternoon. 

Ball asked for more time, saying that she could not say whether or not she would have any amendments until she had more time to read through the budget documents. 

Horn then said he would give committee members until 11:30 a.m., giving them a little more than an hour to decide on amendments. 

Michaux began to question the process, asking Horn if it was his intention to hold a vote on the budget proposal that day. 

Horn said yes, adding that there would be additional opportunities to offer amendments when the proposal went to the full House appropriations committee and the full House floor. 

A heated back-and-forth ensued between the two. 

“Rep. Michaux, you know perfectly well how this operates,” Horn said, adding, “You’re trying to try my patience, and you’re doing a really good job of it.” 

When it was clarified that Thursday’s meeting would be the only meeting of the House education committee on the subject of the budget, Michaux said under his breath that it would not have his vote. And it did not, but the proposal was still given favorable approval by the committee with a 10-4 vote.

Horn said he felt good about the portions of the education budget that were presented Thursday. 

“I believe that we presented a good budget today,” he said. “Not a great budget. But a good budget.” 

He said, however, that it is difficult to give a full comment on the House education budget since educator salaries are not yet included. He said that details on the salaries are still being worked out, and he is not privy to the details, but he stands by the portions of the education budget revealed Thursday. 

“Policy-wise, I think the House budget was thoughtful and that the House budget was very much oriented to students,” he said. “We kept a focus on what happens to each and every student.” 

The budget goes on to the full House appropriations committee next week. 

To see all the items discussed Thursday, read the committee report on the education budget and the special provisions. 

Alex Granados

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