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Threat of early college cut claims its first victim

A provision in the Senate budget that would cut off supplemental funding for early colleges after their first three years — and eventually end funding for the schools already in existence — saw its first fatality this week. 

The Carteret County Board of Education met this week and voted to close the Marine Science and Technology Early College High School (MaST). It was a close vote (4-3) that ultimately means the school’s 100 students will be on their way to other schools. The board decided to use the county’s money for the early college instead on county teaching positions.

In a statement from Carteret County Board of Education Chair Travis Day on the closure, part of which was read at the board meeting where the closing of MaST was decided, Day said that without state funding, the early college wasn’t feasible.

“All other considerations aside, from a financial perspective, we would not be able to continue MaST without state funding,” he wrote. “And unfortunately, the decision on state funding will likely not be confirmed until well after the school year starts.”

The move came before negotiations between the House and Senate over their competing budget plans have completed. The House did not include the early college cuts in its proposal. According to Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a chair of the House education appropriations committee, the Carteret board’s decision was premature. 

“That was an irresponsible decision,” he said. He went on to say that board of education members should have contacted their representatives or education leaders in the General Assembly before making their decision. He said the Senate budget proposals are often negotiating tools that end up looking vastly different in the final budget. 

“Look at the Senate’s budget proposals and the House’s budget proposals and see what ends up in there,” he said. “And consistently, the education pieces have ended up leaning towards the House proposals.”

Horn said the budget compromise should drop on Monday and he hopes the Carteret County Board of Education will reconsider its position. 

“The legislature will continue doing what they’ve been doing: consistently supporting and allowing the growth of early college high schools,” Horn said. 

Day said that a reconsideration of the board’s vote is not likely, however.

“From my perspective, there is no possibility of reversing our decision,” he said in the email. “In Carteret County, we faced a choice … continue funding MaST Early College High School OR fund teaching positions in our county which would have otherwise been lost due to shortages in funding at the state and federal level.”

But in his prepared statement, Day also said the cuts to the early colleges weren’t the only consideration. 

“Regardless of the status of state funding for Early College, our school system still faces reduced state & federal funding which resulted in a shortage of funded teaching positions in schools across our county,” he wrote. 

Day said in his email that there was a silver lining to all of this.

“Regardless of the sadness that the closing of MaST may have caused for some, we will now have almost a quarter of million dollars extra to cover lost teaching positions across our county. This is incredible and should be great news for all.”

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, said she understood the dilemma facing Carteret and other school boards across the state.

“It is unfortunate that even one early college would have to consider closing,” she said, adding: “I’m hopeful that lawmakers and the governor will move quickly to preserve resources for these critical high performing programs and that school systems can ultimately keep them open.”

While Horn’s comments indicate that the early college cuts may not be in the final budget proposal, a wild card in the resolution of all of this is whether Gov. Roy Cooper will veto the budget. Legislative leaders have been meeting with Cooper and his staff this week to negotiate a final spending proposal for the next two years. But talks have been rocky, with Medicaid expansion appearing to be a sticking point. That uncertainty is what contributed to the Carteret board’s concern that an ultimate decision on state funding wouldn’t be known for a while.

The provision in the Senate budget at issue applies to Cooperative Innovative High Schools. There are 133 of them, 90 of which are early colleges. Early college high schools allow students to earn college credits while working towards graduation and are paired with institutions of higher education in the area, most often community colleges.

The funds being cut are the supplemental funds provided by the state for the schools. These funds are above and beyond the traditional funding that schools in North Carolina receive. Early college high schools will still get that traditional funding, but would no longer receive the extra money.

The provision in the Senate budget changes the law to say that supplemental funds for these schools would only be given to a Cooperative Innovative High School in its first three years of operation. The provision also eventually eliminates the supplemental funding for existing schools altogether. Any of the schools that have been receiving this funding prior to the 2017-18 school year would cease receiving it as of the 2021-22 school year. If a school started getting funds in the 2017-18 school year, they would stop receiving them as of the 2022-23 school year. 

Alex Granados

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