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The 2016 Legislative Session: What’s hot and what’s not in ed policy

The recently ended General Assembly short session brought a revised 2016-17 budget, as well as a number of new education-related bills. At the same time, the sudden end to the session — which many observers thought was going to continue into the next week — left many bills, some controversial, on the cutting room floor.

First, let’s talk about which bills passed and which didn’t before we get into the budget and the trends we’re seeing.

What passed?

Two of the most controversial bills were House Bill 242 and House Bill 1080.

HB 242 changes the process for charter school review and renewal. The previous process required that charter schools be reviewed once every five years. The new law says such schools could get away with being reviewed only once during the 10-year lifespan of their charters. Also, low performance is no longer reason enough for the State Board of Education to revoke a school’s charter. Low-performing charter schools can keep chugging along if they meet academic growth standards in their last three years or if they have an improvement plan they’re following and making progress on.

As reported by multiple media outlets, even the National Association of Charter Authorizers expressed concerns about the legislation.

HB 1080 is the Achievement School District bill. At the heart of the legislation is the creation of a district which will include five low-performing schools from around the state. These schools could be turned over to for-profit charter operators by the state.

The ASD bill was introduced at the tail end of the long session last year, and then was the subject of numerous select committee meetings in the months leading up to the short session.

But during session, despite the heavy emotions on both sides of this issue, when the bill was taken up by a Senate Education Committee, Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, who was chairing the committee, limited senators to three questions each, and put a one-hour time limit on the committee meeting.

What didn’t pass

A slew of controversial bills are dead now that the legislature has adjourned.

One of the most divisive was Tillman’s HB 657 that would have forced high schools to allow students the option between the current integrated math track and the pre-Common Core sequence of Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II. Integrated math incorporates aspects of these different math courses within a single course. It’s important to note that though integrated math did come into the state’s schools with the implementation of Common Core, it is not a requirement of Common Core.

The bill morphed over time. Initially, Tillman had wanted the state to go back to the previous sequence and do away with integrated math altogether. The changes in the legislation made it more palatable to some, but weren’t enough to get it all the way to a final vote. The bill passed the Senate, but the House refused to take it up.

Another bill, HB 539, which would change the way funds are divided between charter schools and traditional public schools, is dead. Proponents of the bill say that charter schools are not getting their fair share of funds, while opponents say the bill would give charter schools money they are not entitled to.

This issue isn’t going away. Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, agrees.

“I think it will just be a matter of time before there is a full court push on the funding issues,” he said.

The budget and the trends

The budget is usually the most influential bill to come out of the General Assembly when it comes to impact on state education. So, we asked a number of people what trends they see both in this budget and in previous budgets to see where the state is going and where it’s been. Since teacher salaries usually get the most attention, we’ll start there.

Teacher pay

The final revised budget from the short session increased teacher pay by an average of 4.7 percent. To get that, the General Assembly budgeted an extra $190,947,111 in recurring funds. The budget claims this will put the average teacher salary in North Carolina above $50,150 in fiscal year 2016-17.

But an average is just an average, and some teachers will be getting more and others less. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Durham, wrote a perspective on our site that breaks down the salary increase more. He says the increases range from 2.1 percent to 13.1 percent, depending on how many years of experience a teacher has. He also notes that, while the percent increases may sound good, the amount of extra take-home pay teachers will be getting is less than they might expect.

Every state employee received a $750 bonus last year, but the percent increase in average teacher salaries this year doesn’t take that into account. If it did, the budget’s average percent increase in teacher salaries would be smaller. Meyer notes that the bonus from last year goes away this year, so whatever increase any particular teacher is getting, he or she needs to subtract $750 from that.

“I think the biggest takeaway on this budget is that it’s an election-year budget,” Meyer said in a phone interview.

Teacher pay is a big election-year issue, so the General Assembly paid the most attention to that, he says.

Still, when looking at teacher pay, there has been a clear trend of increases. Last year, during the long session, the General Assembly raised starting-teacher salary to $35,000. In 2014, lawmakers gave teachers an average 7 percent pay increase.

Which isn’t to say that teacher pay isn’t still an issue many see as problematic. WRAL’s recent investigation determined that, after inflation, teacher pay in the state has dropped 13 percent in 15 years.

But, in addition to increases in the past few years, Brenda Berg, president and CEO of BEST NC — a coalition of business leaders focused on improving education in the state — says the General Assembly is planning to keep the trend going.

“What I like is that there seems to be a thoughtfulness to it,” she said of lawmakers plans on teacher pay.

The pay increase plan isn’t just a one-year thing, she points out. The budget has a three-year plan that is supposed to bring average teacher pay in the state to almost $55,000.

Meyer is more skeptical. He says that just because the General Assembly makes a three-year plan this session, that doesn’t mean future General Assembly’s can’t change their minds.

Kris Nordstrom, a former analyst in the Fiscal Research Division of the General Assembly, has challenged the claim that the pay increase plan will bring average teacher salaries over $50,000 in fiscal year 2016-17.

State Superintendent June Atkinson said she would have wanted the pay increases to be more, but is happy about the raises and hopeful for the future.

“I am optimistic that this is a trend that we continue to increase teacher salaries in our state,” she said.

Other pay changes

Atkinson also sees another trend when it comes to teacher pay.

“I believe one place the General Assembly is headed is to have differentiated pay for teachers,” she said.

Differentiated pay often is called pay-for-performance or incentive pay.

That’s the term Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, uses, and he agrees there is a trend.

In the budget, there are a variety of different incentive programs. First, there is a third-grade reading teacher performance pilot program. It’s a two-year program that will give bonuses to the top 25 percent of third-grade reading teachers statewide and the top 25 percent in each school district.

Then there’s another 2-year pilot that will give a $50 bonus to teachers for their students taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and getting a certain grade on the associated exams.

And there is yet another 2-year pilot that will give a $25 or $50 bonus to teachers for their students who complete a Career Technical Education class and pass the related exam that leads to “industry certifications and/or credentials.”

“Those are all things that have been talked about for a while and now we’re seeing them come to fruition,” Horn said.

Also in the budget is a provision that directs the State Board of Education to create a three-year pilot program that will come up with advanced teaching roles for teachers and links how well a teacher performs and grows professionally with salary increases.

Principals

Principals haven’t been much of a focus for lawmakers in sessions past, but it’s starting to look like they are going to start getting more attention.

Last year, the General Assembly budgeted $1 million to set up the infrastructure of a principal preparation program. This year, the General Assembly granted the program another $3.5 million that can be used as grants for the entities that will be doing the actual preparation of principals. The House, where the idea originated, wanted $8.5 million for the program. But given the fact that the Senate wanted to cut it altogether, $3.5 million feels like a win.

Principals only got a very meager pay increase this session. All administrators received a 1.5 percent recurring salary increase, along with a .5 percent nonrecurring increase.

But perhaps more important is the indication that the General Assembly is going to look at the principal salary schedule and hopefully find a way to fix it.

We reported extensively last year on the problems with the schedule, including principals going years without pay increases from the state and sometimes being paid less than the teachers they oversee.

In the budget is a provision establishing a joint legislative study committee to take a look at the salary schedule.

All of this is important because average principal pay is down near the bottom for all states. If you count Washington D.C., North Carolina is 50th in the nation. Only West Virginia is lower.

In the meantime, this budget does something odd with regards to pay, as noted by Meyer: For those principals who would be paid more if they stayed a teacher, they will now be paid on the teacher salary schedule rather than the principal salary schedule. This is Meyer’s take on a section of the budget that says teachers who become assistant principals or principals will be paid at least as much as they were as teachers once they take their new administrative position.

“That seems ridiculous to me,” Meyer said. “That’s like a corporation telling one of their managers, if you’d rather be on a sales person’s salary than on a management salary, we’d be happy to put you on a sales person’s salary.”

Early-grade reading

Third-grade reading scores are an indicator of future success for students, so it should be no surprise that the General Assembly is paying a lot of attention to elementary school literacy.

Stoops says there is a definite trend from lawmakers in this area.

When it comes to the incentive program for third grade teachers, Stoops says that is likely to be expanded in the future.

“I don’t know how they can keep it there when K-2 is as important,” he said.

Then, of course, there is Read to Achieve, a program implemented in years past by lawmakers that pays special attention to students with the goal of making sure they are reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

“I suspect that the funds that support the Read to Achieve program and all the other initiatives that buttress it will continue to be funded and funded at a higher level,” Stoops said.

Stoops also said that the limits on class sizes in early grades is an indicator of lawmakers’ interest in supporting early readers. The revised budget passed during the short session sets limits on class sizes in elementary school at the following levels:

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

Opportunity Scholarships

And then there are Opportunity Scholarships (also known as vouchers). The legislation that created this passed in 2013. It gives state funds to low-income students so they can attend private schools.

The program has been steadily expanding since its inception, making this already controversial policy even more controversial.

In the compromise budget, the state will spend an extra $5.8 million to increase the special education opportunity scholarship program by 137 percent. And, the budget for the regular opportunity scholarship program will go up by $10 million each year for 11 years, increasing funding from about $35 million appropriated in 2016-17, to almost $145 million in 2027-28 and each year after.

Meyer says there is no way the current General Assembly can lock in plans for opportunity scholarship expansion over 10 years. Any future General Assembly could just change its mind. He also thinks the optimism about the program and the need to expand it is misplaced. “There’s still not evidence that people even want to use all the voucher money that’s available,” he said.

Stoops said, “The expansion of the special needs scholarship and the opportunity scholarship, and the commitment to continue to fund the opportunity scholarship program consistently for the next 10 years is quite a statement that the legislature is committed to the long term success of vouchers in North Carolina.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.