House lawmakers unveiled a draft biennial budget Monday that includes pay raises for all teachers and a patchwork of funding initiatives aimed at improving leadership and instruction — but what’s not in the budget is what some say will prove to be the biggest challenge ahead for North Carolina’s classrooms.
“The proposed House budget does not go far enough to ensure every child will receive a quality education in North Carolina,” said North Carolina Association of Educators’ president Rodney Ellis in a statement released Monday afternoon. “If we are serious about every child’s future, we must provide students with modern textbooks and technology, more one-one-one attention, and a quality educator in every classroom.”
Budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake) called the overall proposed House budget, which raises current spending by 6.3 percent, “responsible” and in line with population growth and inflation. In addition to teacher raises, the House proposes boosting textbook funds, fully funding increases in school enrollment and restoring funding for driver’s education.
But even as the economy recovers from the recession and revenue figures are looking better than expected, cuts to public school funding have been significant over the past several years and are not made up for with the 2015-17 House budget proposal, says the N.C. Budget & Tax Center’s Tazra Mitchell.
“Teachers will be in a better position to make ends meet,” said Mitchell of the House plan. “But there is still lots on the to do list for state budget writers when it comes to inside the classroom.”
Teachers raises & technology
With the House budget proposal, beginning teachers would see their base salaries boosted to $35,000—the same pitch made by Governor McCrory in his budget earlier this year and part two of GOP lawmakers’ 2014 promise to move teachers up over a two year period from a career-entry salary of $30,800 to $35,000.
Unlike McCrory’s plan, House lawmakers also propose giving all other teachers an across-the-board pay raise of two percent, along with state employees.
North Carolina has plummeted to the bottom of national rankings on teacher pay since 2008, back when the state hovered around average in how much it paid its teachers.
Last year, lawmakers raised teacher pay for the first time after years of frozen wages. The salary increases, stacked to favor early career teachers, pulled the state up from 48th in teacher pay to 42nd.
Rodney Ellis, president of the state’s teacher association, says the proposed teacher pay raises don’t go far enough.
“It will not make a dent in North Carolina’s…average teacher pay rankings,” said Ellis in a statement.
The House plan proposes to keep current funding levels for teacher assistants the same — good news in that money for TAs has been on the chopping block for years in a row, but with budget cuts resulting in 7,000 fewer TAs in the state as compared with 2008, it falls short in ensuring every classroom has the instructional support it needs.
Funds for textbooks—which are now lumped together with digital resources—are boosted under the House plan with an infusion of nearly $50 million for next year and $43.5 million the following year.
That brings the total pot of money for textbooks to hover around the $70 million mark each of those two years, but worth noting is that funding level would still remain well below where it stood in 2009—$117 million—and that’s on top of years of a textbook budget that was almost zeroed out. Many classrooms are working with textbooks nearly a decade old—or none at all.
The House’s budget emphasizes the need for improvements to school technology, however, as evidenced by including digital resources in the textbook fund as well as a $12 million proposal to support a school connectivity initiative that would bring broadband internet to all K-12 public school buildings in North Carolina. Another $9 million each year of the biennium would go to support a digital learning plan developed by N.C. State’s Friday Institute.
House lawmakers had hoped to see a bill that could change how classrooms are staffed and how the state provides teachers with financial incentives make the the crossover deadline, but it stalled earlier in the session.
Originally based on Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture, the contents of the NC Elevating Educators Act, now inserted into the budget, has evolved to provide local school districts more flexibility in the development of their plans, according to NC School Boards Association’s Leanne Winner.
The pilot program would ask local school districts to design advanced teaching roles for high quality teachers that would reward them for improving the quality of classroom instruction and increase school-wide academic growth.
A concern with the proposal that persists is that it allows those participating to be exempt from class size limits in grades K-3, Winner said.
Lawmakers also included bonuses for teachers whose students take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course and achieve minimum scores. Fifty dollars for each student that scores three or higher on an AP exam and four or higher on an IB exam would be awarded to the teacher, not to exceed $2,000 annually.
Teachers of students who complete Career and Technical Education classes could also earn small bonuses.
Other small pots of money are peppered throughout the House budget to encourage leadership training and professional development. Federal Race to the Top dollars that support regional leadership academies that train school administrators are running out, so lawmakers propose spending $4 million in 2015 to keep RLAs running as new funding options are considered.
Other key highlights
House lawmakers’ education budget extends well beyond teacher pay & technology. Below is a summary of some of the most important elements of the House education budget.
School vouchers: Provided the Supreme Court allows the Opportunity Scholarships program to proceed, which provides students with state funds to attend private schools, House lawmakers propose a $6.8 million increase for 2015-16—bringing the annual cost of program to $17.6 million.
Disability school vouchers: Students with disabilities would be able to use up to $8,000 state funds annually to attend private schools—that’s up from $6,000 annually in prior years. Families could also get tuition funds up front versus having to wait for reimbursement.
Charter schools: $2 million over two years would be provided to Parents for Educational Freedom NC to run a program that aims to expand charter schools across the state.
There’s also a special provision directing the State Board of Education to study the requirement that charter schools have a $50,000 reserve fund in the event they are shut down, with special consideration of possibly providing some charters waivers for the $50k requirement.
And $2.5 million is allocated for each year of the biennium to offset the cost of the state’s new virtual charter schools, which are expected to draw 3,000 students out of the public education system each year.
Driver’s education: State funding is scheduled to dry up for driver’s ed this upcoming year, placing a huge financial burden on local districts. House lawmakers are proposing to keep funds going with $26 million in ’15-16 and likely more to come for the following year too.
Transportation: Lawmakers are projecting that the cost of fuel will stay low over the biennium, so they’ve decreased the school transportation budget by $20 million compared to the base each year of the biennium.
Read to Achieve: Several fixes to the Read to Achieve program, which keeps students from advancing to the fourth grade if they cannot read on grade level, were included in the House budget. Most notable is the revision to the reading portfolio requirement, which would reduce considerably the excessive testing that has resulted from the legislation. (See background here.)
School safety: $1.8 million each year for local school districts to hire additional school psychologists, school counselors and social workers.
Microsoft agreement: Just over $2.5 million in each year of the biennium for North Carolina’s public schools to enter into a purchasing agreement with Microsoft to make their Office products to available free of charge to every student and school staff member.
Higher education: The House fully funded expected enrollment growth in the UNC system, but also pitched $44.3 million over the next two years in management cuts.
Lawmakers are also pushing for a program that would push academically weak college students into a community college program before gaining admission to the state’s four-year universities, known as NC GAP. The program faces opposition from the UNC system, fearing it would serve as yet another barrier to access for already underserved students.
There’s also a carve out for Western Governors University, which would allow low-income students to get state aid to attend the virtual university that provides college credit to those who can successfully pass competency-based assessments.
See more about how higher education fared in reporter Sarah Ovaska’s story here.
The House’s budget proposal will be debated by the full Appropriations committee Tuesday beginning at 9am. It is expected to receive a final vote by the full House this week and then gets sent on to the Senate, which will continue the budget making process in the weeks ahead.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected].