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Update: The Senate met Tuesday and then adjourned until Wednesday at 11.am. 

Ever since the House budget was released a few weeks ago, General Assembly watchers have been anxiously waiting to see the Senate’s version. Nearly every week since, we have been told to expect an imminent release only to have it pushed back. 

Sarah Curry, director of Fiscal Policy Studies at the John Locke Foundation quoted Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow) saying that delays were, in part, because of difficulties with the education budget. 

Yesterday, the Senate finally presented its budget, and depending on your perspective, it contained both highs and lows for the state’s schools. 

The Senate increased spending on K-12 by $453 million and fully-funded enrollment growth. It also raised the pay for beginning teachers to $35,000. Other teachers would receive raises as well, though veteran teachers would still max out at $50,000 (in state funding). 

Another boon is funding to reduce class sizes. The Senate would spend almost $80 million in fiscal year 2015-16 and almost $193 million in 2016-17. In the first year, that would lower the student to teacher ratio in grades 1-3 to 1 teacher for every 16 students. In the second year, it would reduce the kindergarten ratio to 1 to 17 and grades 1-3 to 1 to 15. The class sizes would be reduced by adding about 2,000 teachers to the school system next year and 4,700 in the second year.

But the lower class size comes at a cost. The Senate would cut funding for teacher assistants, equating to a reduction of about 8,500 over two years. 

Senator Chad Barefoot, (R-Wake), co-chair of the education appropriations committee, said the reduction in class size mitigates the need for teacher assistants, and he pointed out that funding for teacher assistants covers grades K-3. 

“We’re drastically reducing classroom size in those grades,” he said. 

In contrast to the House budget, the Senate would not provide funding for drivers education. Instead, it would allow local boards of education to charge students the full cost of the program. Currently, they can only require students to pay up to $65 for the classes. With the cap lifted, that cost would go up to $300 or more depending on the county. That applies to this coming year, but in 2016-17, community colleges are going to take over. The community college system can use $200,000 in 2015-16 to conduct a feasibility study on the proposal that would consider the cost and possible options for funding, among other things. 

Other points of interest

  • Expands by almost $7 million dollars each year the opportunity scholarship program
  • Continues master’s pay for teachers that currently qualify. Does not provide funding for new master’s pay going forward
  • Gives the State Board of Education ability to consolidate contiguous (neighboring) Local Education Agencies
  • Requires schools that received Ds or Fs in A-F grading system to come up with improvement plans
  • Reduces the Department of Public Instructions funding by 10 percent

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a group that supports and advocates for school choice — including opportunity scholarships and charter schools — put out a press release commending the Senate’s support for the opportunity scholarship program. 

“There is no doubt, pending a favorable ruling from the North Carolina Supreme Court, that the Opportunity Scholarship Program would be one of the state’s winners when the budget process is completed,” said PEFNC President Darrell Allison, adding later in the release, “I’d like to commend Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and the Republican leadership for keeping their commitment to students, parents and teachers by proposing a budget that puts North Carolina on the path to provide a ‘sound, basic education’ for all children in our state regardless of their income level or educational model.”

The legality of the opportunity scholarship program is currently being considered by the state Supreme Court. 

The North Carolina Association of Educators, on the other hand, put out a statement condemning the budget. 

“The Senate’s proposed budget continues to mire North Carolina in the bottom of the heap when it comes to investing in our students. Instead of using the opportunity of a surplus budget to make critical investments in public education, the Senate majority chose to decimate the state’s teacher assistants,” said NCAE President Rodney Ellis. “Students will lose out on the opportunity for more one-on-one instruction, not to mention the thousands of families that will be put in turmoil because they have lost a job. North Carolina is better than this.”

Amendments to the budget are being heard today. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.