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The General Assembly short session starting on Tuesday will be unlike any seen in recent history. For starters, the building won’t be nearly as crowded as usual. Only General Assembly members, staff, and credentialed media are allowed in, and they will have their temperatures taken when they enter.

Second, the bulk of what the legislature will be considering, at least in the beginning, will be items related to COVID-19. The unprecedented shutdown of society combined with the closing of schools for in-person instruction means that lawmakers are having to tackle topics they’ve never faced.

How do we evaluate students if they can’t take standardized tests? How do we know how effective teachers are without the data that comes from those tests? What does the closing of school mean for graduations, licensure, the school calendar, and class size restrictions? The list goes on and on.

“We keep hearing the word unprecedented, and it’s the right word,” said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a chair of an education working group tackling COVID-19 related issues. “But my goodness, what a mess.”

Fortunately, we have some idea of what lawmakers want to do with these items and many more, so let’s take a look at what we can expect this short session.

COVID-19 funding needs

“When we come back, there has been no discussion of considering legislation not related to COVID-19.”

That’s what Pat Ryan, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said during an interview.

“My hope is that in late May, maybe early to late June, we’ll be able to be back in a normal short session as one would expect,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

So, while it’s not clear when the legislature will take up normal short session business, they do all agree that these first few weeks are all about COVID-19. And the good news is, we have some money.

According to an email sent out by State Treasurer Dale Folwell, North Carolina has already received more than $2 billion as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. That is money that can be used by the legislature to combat impacts related to COVID-19. Overall, the state is supposed to receive more than $4 billion from the federal government to be used by the legislature. Moore puts the amount that the state has already received at about $2.2 billion.

“If we were having to do this alone without any of that federal money coming in, we’d be in a real jam,” Moore said.

But that money might not go as far as we hope. Moore said that addressing health care issues related to COVID-19, in particular, is going to be expensive.

“The health care costs are going to be just … I’m trying to think of a word that’s more appropriate than huge,” he said. “Whatever huge times two is.”

The House put together a House Select Committee on COVID-19. It’s broken up into working groups, and the education working group has been meeting for weeks. Last week, they voted for a bill that will be introduced during the short session. Before we get into that bill, let’s point out what’s not in it — any appropriations.

The working group has been hearing from various officials representing higher education, community colleges, and K-12 schools, and they’ve been getting a sense of what kind of financial help these various sectors need. Those presentations have been sent on to House leadership, according to Rep. John Fraley, R-Iredell, a chair of the education working group. He said during a working group meeting that ultimately a consensus will be formed between the House, Senate, and Gov. Roy Cooper about how to appropriate money for the various requests, and then those decisions will be used to form an appropriations bill. He said that bill will likely be seen this week.

We know that the State Board of Education and the state Department of Public Instruction are asking for roughly $380 million. Big ticket items in their legislative requests include $56 million for school nutrition, $21.6 million for supplemental pay for child nutrition and transportation employees, $21.2 million for connectivity, $91.5 million for digital devices for students, and $55 million for student reentry resources for student physical and mental health.

Focusing just on exceptional children, the Board is asking for about $18 million for the Exceptional Children Division to allow for extended school year and future services, and $70 million for summer Bridge/Jump Start programs aimed at helping K-3 students who are behind in reading or math. 

Here is their complete legislative request.

Michelle Hughes, executive director of NC Child, said the North Carolina Early Childhood Coalition is hoping for about $185 million for things like protective equipment, bonuses for child care teachers, lost revenue, and more.

Peter Hans, president of the North Carolina Community College System, told lawmakers that in the immediate term, the system needs a reserve of up to $25 million to draw down from to meet any shortfall from loss in tuition due to COVID-19. He also said community colleges need money to help pay for the transition online, although at the time of the presentation, the cost was still to be determined.

We’ve gotten some idea from Senate Democrats about how much money the Senate might be looking at spending on COVID-19 related issues.

They released documents last week that include $205.4 million in non-recurring funding for five emergency appropriations requests. They are:

  • $25 million for North Carolina Community College System reserve funds to make up for a loss in student receipts. 
  • $10 million for the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities for the Emergency Student and Family Fund.
  • $37.4 million for UNC for the Emergency Assistance Fund to help with the cost of transitioning to online learning, personal protective equipment, overtime, reimbursements, and work study programs. 
  • $8 million for UNC for digital learning enhancements, which includes help with online transitioning. 
  • $125 million for emergency child care economic support funds, including funds for personal protective equipment, supplies, and to make sure essential workers have child care.

Sen. Don Davis, D-Pitt, was spearheading the education portions of the Senate Democrats’ work around COVID-19. Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, a chair of both the Senate education and education appropriations committees, said she has been working with Davis since the end of March on these issues.

According to her, everybody is mostly on the same page about these items. Perhaps even the Democratic governor.

On Friday, Gov. Cooper announced both the closure of schools for the rest of the year as well as a bipartisan budget package he was introducing ahead of the short session this week.

Details were high-level, but Cooper said his budget package amounts to $1.4 billion from the federal CARES Act.

It includes $78 million for school nutrition and $243 million for public schools for things like enhancing remote teaching and implementing the Summer Bridge/Jump Start program for disadvantaged students.

In addition, the budget package includes about $77 million for higher education, with a portion of that going to community colleges to support online offerings and student tutoring.

Cooper said Friday that lawmakers have seen his plans already and that the budget package was developed in part with input from legislators, though he said his proposal may not exactly match what lawmakers have been planning.

So, that takes care of money — at least what we know so far. But tackling COVID-19 is about so much more than that. So let’s delve into what provisions the legislature is likely to tackle.

COVID-19 policy changes

For weeks now, the State Board of Education has been ticking through various legislative requests needed to ensure the continued function of the state K-12 education system. A great deal of what happens in education in North Carolina is dictated by law. These statutes and regulations govern what should be happening in schools during normal times. But these aren’t normal times, and so the state’s schools need waivers from a number of legislatively-mandated items.

For instance, high school students are only supposed to be able to graduate if they have completed CPR instruction. That’s tough to do when people can’t meet in person. The state needs a waiver from the legislature so those students can still graduate.

Schools get assigned a letter grade based on data collected from assessments that are administered each year. In addition, a number of assessments are required by the legislature, including the ACT for 11th graders. But none of these tests are taking place any longer.

The list goes on and on. The House education working group passed a bill last week that addresses the numerous waivers the legislature will have to pass so that public schools can still function. It will be taken up in the short session.

The following overview document gives bullet point details.

Here is the full bill.

When Senate Democrats released their documents related to COVID-19, they included a list of 30 special provisions, which mirror much of the same policy changes in the House bill. You can read it here.

Again, Ballard said that Republicans in the Senate have been working with Democrats, so they are mostly in agreement on these items.

“I think it’s important for our education community to know that we’re together as much as we can,” she said in an interview.

Additionally, COVID-19 school closures have set many students in the Exceptional Children Division behind as some services cannot be offered through remote learning. Any waivers from disability education laws will come from the federal government, but the state will need to address how to remediate the lost time.

So, after the legislature takes care of COVID-19, what does that leave? The normal short session of the General Assembly.

Where are we now?

As we mentioned before, there does not seem to be any consensus on when or if non-COVID-19 related items will be taken up by the legislature. But, nevertheless, people will still have a lot of questions about things like teacher pay, principal pay, and all sorts of other issues that lawmakers have become accustomed to debating year after year.

We’re going to talk about what, if anything, might happen with non-COVID-19 related issues. But first, let’s look at what happened in the long session.

The most-recent long session of the General Assembly wasn’t exactly a typical one. For the first time in a long time, the Republicans had lost their supermajority in both chambers, meaning that they couldn’t easily override the Democratic governor’s vetoes. And Cooper did indeed use his veto: 14 times. Perhaps most notably, on the budget.

Cooper pointed out two reasons in particular for vetoing the budget: school construction and teacher pay.

The final budget compromise would have provided about $4.4 billion over 10 years for K-12 school construction and repair. Of that, $1.5 billion would have come from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund, $1 billion from the Public School Capital Fund, and $1.9 billion in needs-based capital funding. Cooper, on the other hand, favored a school construction bond, something that was initially also favored by the House. Cooper said given low interest rates, a bond was the best plan for school construction. 

On teacher pay, the budget included an average 3.9% pay raise over the biennium, but all new raises went to teachers with 16 years of experience or more. Teachers with fewer than 16 years simply would have gotten their planned step increases. Cooper’s plan would have included an average 9.1% increase for teachers, as well as the restoration of master’s pay. 

So Cooper vetoed the budget. In a surprise morning vote, the House managed to override the veto when a lot of Democrats were out of the room. But the veto override stalled in the Senate.

Republicans tried to sweeten the deal. They passed legislation that would have given teachers an average 4.4% pay raise over two years if Democrats helped to defeat Cooper’s veto of the budget. If not, it would give them the same average 3.9% raise that was in the budget. That bill ended up getting vetoed, too, so the result is that teachers got no teacher pay raises.

Even though the legislature never passed a full budget, they did manage to pass a number of mini-budgets that addressed education issues.

Under a mini budget passed in the fall, principals got an average pay raise of 6.2%. However, that bill did not address some of the concerns about the principal pay schedule that critics have, including the fact that school growth is a huge factor in how much principals get paid. Detractors argue that school growth isn’t totally within a principal’s control and that having it as a motivating factor may lead to principals avoiding positions at low-performing schools.

That same bill also funded step increases for teachers who were eligible for them.

Other notable items from the long session include:

A mini budget bill provided money for most of the priorities the community college system asked for, including funding to achieve parity between the system’s short-term workforce programs and its typical curriculum programs. A separate bill would have provided much-needed increases for faculty pay at community colleges, among other things, but it was vetoed by the governor.

Cooper gave the following explanation for his veto in a press release.

“The General Assembly shortchanges our universities and community colleges and their employees, as well as state retirees, despite a robust economy and decent raises for other state employees,” he wrote. “Higher education is North Carolina’s best economic development tool, and we must invest in education to keep it that way.”

 The bill would have provided $12.4 million recurring in the first year and $24.8 million recurring in the second year for community college personnel. 

There was also no real movement on calendar flexibility.

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. From snow to hurricanes, schools are often forced to close school and then jam in make-up days at odd times in order to fit within the legislative calendar mandate. Districts argue they need calendar flexibility — the ability to start and stop school given local considerations — to avoid extreme measures sometimes needed to get kids the instruction that is mandated. 

There is large-scale bipartisan support for calendar flexibility, but advocates say that the tourism industry holds up legislation because businesses that rely on student workers over the summer don’t want districts to cut into their season.  How will that play out now that COVID-19 is affecting every district in the state?

Short session: What could happen?

So whether or not lawmakers take up normal short session items is unclear, but if they did, what might we be looking at?

Well, let’s start with the money. For the past few years, the legislature has been able to spend and save pretty generously because they have been operating with budget surpluses. That is not going to be the case this year.

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 in 2018, lawmakers added an additional $167,847,276 for the Department of Public Instruction in 2018.

In 2019, the General Assembly wanted to pass a two-year budget that included 9,857,518,690 for the Department of Public Instruction in 2019, and 10,177,532,330 in 2020.

But, as we mentioned, that budget was vetoed. Fortunately, state law keeps the prior year’s spending level when there is no state budget. So North Carolina just reverted back to 2018 budget levels. However, any non-recurring dollars that were previously budgeted are now gone. And the only new spending that was added happened in the mini budgets that were passed by the General Assembly.

Which brings us to now. What is the outlook going into the short session?

According to Moore, the fiscal research division of the General Assembly is projecting a shortfall of between $2.5 and $3 billion. Meanwhile, between $1.2 billion in the state’s savings and reserve fund and $2.2 billion in unappropriated balance, the state has about $3.4 billion, he said. Which means the shortfall could leave the state low on funds. And as COVID-19 continues to rage, that shortfall projection could grow.

On Friday, Berger announced that the Senate will not try again this short session to override Cooper’s veto of the long session budget, citing the budget shortfall in part.

“Our state’s financial outlook is in a vastly different place than it was before this pandemic hit,” he said in a press release, adding: “We’re staring down a multi-billion dollar revenue shortfall, which negatively impacts our ability to fund the vetoed budget.”

The press release also said that Senate budget writers sent a letter to Cooper asking that he tell agencies under his purview to find 1% in savings in their budget. That would equate to $250 million that the state could use in the next fiscal year, the press release stated.

There are a number of education topics that are high on the list when it comes to the legislature, perhaps none more than teacher pay. So given the state’s economic prospects, what can educators expect?

Teacher pay

Back in 2008, when the economic recession devastated North Carolina, the state’s public school system was rocked and teacher pay was frozen. Whenever there is a discussion about teacher pay, there is a lot of talk about returning to pre-recession spending. Well, it looks like another recession may be looming, and education could be hit once again.

“I think one issue in the back of everybody’s minds underlying this revenue challenge is the notion that the last thing that we or probably any legislator wants to have to do is cut teacher positions or teacher pay,” said Ryan, Berger’s spokesperson.

Ryan said that the state is in a better position now than it was in 2008. Back then, the state’s savings were smaller and North Carolina had less cash reserved. He said he’s heard that the state has enough money saved that we could withstand a recession similar to the one that hit in 2008. But we have to be careful.

“We can’t spend all of the money that we have saved up right now, because we may have a revenue hit next year,” he said, adding later: “It’s almost impossible to have no money at all and not touch teachers.”

And the federal money can’t be used to fill state budget gaps, so Ryan said the legislature is going to have to be prudent if it wants to protect teachers during this recession.

In the short term, however, Moore said there is something that Cooper could do for teachers. As part of the CARES Act, Cooper received more than $90 million from the federal government. According to Moore, Cooper can use that for teacher bonuses.

“The governor can actually fund a bonus equal to the same amount of raise that was in the budget,” he said.

The governor’s office was more restrained in its position on how the governor would use those funds.

“While no decisions yet have been made, Governor Cooper will work with stakeholders to ensure these funds help students in need across our state,” said Dory MacMillan, press secretary for Cooper.

Calendar flexibility

Thanks to COVID-19, there may be some movement with calendar flexibility this session. In the bill passed out of the education working group, there is language that would allow schools to start as early as Aug. 17 this fall. Ordinarily, they wouldn’t be able to start until Aug. 24 this year. Additionally, the bill allows districts to count remote learning towards instructional days.

In the budget package Cooper released Friday was a provision recommendations document that included a recommendation for instructional hour and calendar flexibility for school districts. It was the only public school, non-money related provision he included.

The provision would let school districts figure out how to make up days lost to COVID-19. It would also let them decide what kind of credit to give for remote learning when the school year is over, and it would waive any requirements related to instructional days and hours. 

See the provision below.

Other items: Leandro, broadband, and more

Early childhood education

Bipartisan support for early childhood education has been a pattern of recent legislative sessions, with increased attention to improving literacy instruction in early grades, expanding state-funded public Pre-K, and recognizing a need for more coordination between K-12 and the systems that support children younger than 5. But advocates say more investment is needed, especially in children in the very first years of life and in the adults who care for them.

The state allocated about $22.7 million in its 2017-18 budget for NC Pre-K, with a pledge to spend an additional $9 million to expand the program each fiscal year until 2020-21. The program, which served 29,509 children in 2019, has been around since 2001 and targets 4-year-olds who are considered “at-risk” based mostly on income. 

About half the state’s 4-year-olds are considered eligible, yet the program reaches about a quarter of them. The program is delivered in a variety of public and private settings, with the state paying a per-child reimbursement rate to providers. A 2018 report from the National Institute of Early Education (NIEER) found many counties were turning down additional funding from the state because the money given to providers was not sufficient to pay and keep high-quality teachers, provide transportation, or create space for more children.

The General Assembly passed legislation last year, House Bill 886, to study why specific high-quality child care centers were not participating in the program, as well as additional local challenges, and set a goal of enrolling 75% of eligible children in each county. Those studies from the Division of Child Development and Early Education have yet to be released.

In 2019, the early learning advocacy community rallied around legislation, House Bill 882, to increase education requirements and compensation for early childhood teachers. The bill died, but advocates are hoping the front-line work of child care centers during COVID-19 will bring more state investment in the early care and education workforce.  

The B-3 Interagency Council, created by the legislature in 2017 and tasked with creating a coordinated system of education for children from birth to third grade, released policy recommendations in April 2019 that push for smoother transitions for children between early childhood and elementary school, better data systems to track student outcomes, and stronger pipelines for early educators and administrators.

There has also been a lot of talk this last year about literacy for K-3 students. Staff at DPI as well as lawmakers have been working hard on figuring out how best to teach our youngest students to read.

The hallmark piece of legislation addressing this issue is Read to Achieve. It’s a law that has been in operation since 2012 and aims to make sure that all the state’s students are reading on grade level by the third grade. As part of that law, students who don’t demonstrate proficiency by the end of third grade are supposed to attend summer reading camps, and if they still aren’t proficient, they are supposed to retake the third grade. 

An analysis of the program from The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation found the program to be largely ineffective and said that it wasn’t being implemented uniformly in districts around the state. Legislation championed by State Board of Education member JB Buxton, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, and Berger was intended to reform Read to Achieve. However, that legislation was vetoed by Cooper.

For advocates of students with learning differences, the bill was a big deal. It would have changed the state’s approach to reading instruction by incorporating approaches that groups like Decoding Dyslexia NC say would help children with specific learning disabilities as well as general education students striving to read. The State Board of Education is examining whether to introduce some of these measures through its policy-making. 

In addition, the State Board of Education created a literacy task force to address issues in preparation, curriculum, and instruction. The task force’s preliminary work can be found here.

Meanwhile, included in the set of provisions approved by the House education working groups are waivers for the reading camp requirements for students who aren’t reading on grade level.

Leandro

The Leandro case has been a long-running theme in North Carolina education since 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 higher-income districts. The State Supreme Court ultimately said that the state’s children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that North Carolina had not lived up to that constitutional requirement. 

Both sides in the Leandro case agreed back in 2017 that an independent consultant should be chosen to make recommendations on how the state can ensure quality education for every North Carolina child.

That consultant was WestEd, and the organization released a report in late 2019 that laid out how the state can ensure that all students in North Carolina have the opportunity for a “sound basic education.”

consent order followed, signed by Judge David Lee, that lays out the general agreement of all parties as to the facts of the case, the findings and recommendations of the WestEd report, and the need to do something further to meet the Leandro mandates. It also establishes a plan for the parties to present further reports detailing concrete steps the state will take to meet the short-, middle-, and long-term recommendations of the WestEd report.

Early childhood education was a big part of the report, with the consent order stating that high-quality early childhood education was central to meeting the state’s obligation of equal educational opportunity. Lee called for a “system of early education that provides access to high-quality pre-kindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure that all students at-risk of educational failure, regardless of where they live in the State, enter kindergarten on track for school success.”

The WestEd report suggests expanding NC Pre-K’s reach as well as its duration to a full-day, full-year program. The report also recommends more funding for Smart Start — a statewide network of local organizations, called “partnerships,” — to meet the program’s original intent of meeting 25% of local early childhood learning needs. Local partnerships are often central hubs of funding and programs for both child care centers and families with young children. In 2017-18, the state allocated $147 million to the network. Funding has been flat for the last several years. 

The report also suggests building the early educator pipeline and strengthening alignment between early childhood and elementary systems.

Back in January, when the consent order was issued, Lee was supposed to be receiving a report on how to deal with short-term plans in 60 days. That deadline has now been delayed until June 1.

At the time that the consent order came out, it was expected that Leandro would play a big role in the short session, but now it’s not so clear. With COVID-19 dominating the stage, there might not be room for anything else.

Michael D. Priddy, acting president/executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, is hoping the legislature does still try to tackle the tenets of Leandro.

“When our state lawmakers return to the task of legislating at the end of this month, the Public School Forum calls on our leadership to take specific actions that can help to ensure we continue to progress toward a positive resolution of the Leandro lawsuit,” he said in a statement Friday.

Among the issues he said the legislature needs to tackle are access to broadband internet, ensure educators are paid, allow calendar flexibility, and ensure more school funding flexibility.

Here is his full statement:

Broadband

COVID-19 has put into sharp view the issues with broadband internet access in North Carolina. As schools around the state geared up for remote learning, educators ran into issues with students and families who didn’t have access to the internet and/or devices in order to take advantage of remote learning. 

Schools found workarounds, including sending home instructional packets, setting up Wi-Fi zones in school parking lots, and even having mobile hot spots on school buses. But what has become clear is that broadband internet needs to be more readily accessible for the state’s students.

One of the working groups of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 — the Economic Support Workgroup — heard from Jeff Sural, the director of the Broadband Infrastructure Office of the NC Department of Information Technology, on this issue recently.  

He offered some possible near-term solutions to the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, including offering “free or cost-based equipment” to schools, requesting emergency federal money that states can use to buy hot spots and other equipment to offer Wi-Fi on buses, and finding resources that could be used to get up to 100,000 devices and services for students who aren’t currently being served.

A slide in his presentation said, “Situation highlights the unserved areas and challenges and accentuates the need for accelerating permanent solutions.”

His longer-term solutions are going to require a concerted effort on the part of the state to bolster the broadband capacity of North Carolina. Here is the list he presented.

Courtesy of DIT

Of all the issues that will be dealt with this legislative short session, broadband is perhaps the one to watch most closely. It may determine the future of how North Carolina’s public schools are able to function during COVID-19 and moving forward.

Here is Sural’s full presentation.

Behind the Story

EdNC reporter Liz Bell contributed to the early childhood sections of this piece, and EdNC reporter Rupen Fofaria contributed to the sections on learning differences.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.