North Carolina Education Policy Update

May 13, 2019

Pardon Our Dust

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The North Carolina General Assembly has been hard at work over the last few weeks; with the House drafting, debating and passing its state budget proposal (H 966), and the House and the Senate putting in long days (and a few nights) debating and passing bills ahead of their self-imposed “crossover” deadline – the date, which was May 9th this year, by which non-appropriations/non-finance legislation must pass its chamber of origin in order to remain eligible for consideration during the remainder of the two year legislative session.

In the middle of this legislative activity, on May 1, for the second straight year, teachers from across the state traveled to Raleigh, to march downtown along Fayetteville Street, before heading to the Legislative Building to advocate for increased teacher pay and school funding, among other items. Many school districts canceled classes for the day of the teacher rally.

Throughout House budget discussions, and during floor debates and votes in both chambers, legislators focused on a variety of education issues facing the state.

House Budget

In the proposed budget that passed and went over to the Senate the week of April 29, HB 966: 2019 Appropriation Act, the House included a net appropriation of over $14 billion in FY 2019-20 and over $14.3 billion in the second year of the biennium in the education funding, including teacher and principal pay raises. The average salary for teachers would increase 4.8 percent. Assistant principals would see an average salary increase of 6.3 percent and school principals would get an average of 10 percent.

The budget also includes an additional $30 million in FY 2019-20 and $53.2 million the following year to be used to fund five School Safety Grants. These Grants would provide funds for school resource officers, services for students in crisis, school safety training, safety equipment in schools, and additional school mental health support personnel. Several of the grants would be matched on a $2.00 of state funds for every $1.00 of non-state funds basis.

 $1 million will be allocated in FY 2019-20 to fund a virtual early learning pilot program for three years. The program is aimed at providing access to a quality preschool education for at-risk children particularly in rural areas of the state. Additionally, the proposal instructs the Department of Public Instruction to contract with the Children and Parent Resource Group, Inc. to design, implement, and evaluate a one-year pilot program operating in 11 counties. The Life Changing Experiences School Pilot Program addresses life and community-threatening activities such as alcohol and drug use, dangerous driving, and bullying, with the end goal of increasing positive behavioral outcomes of students.

The House 2019 Appropriations Act includes a variety of additional provisions, from graduation requirements to school performance scores. HB 966 would require all North Carolina high schools students to complete a course on Economics and Personal Finance (EPF) prior to graduation. Another provision included in this year’s budget proposal establishes permanently a 15-point scale for school performance grades and modifies the weighting distribution of grading measures. A school’s overall performance score would be calculated by adding their school achievement and school growth scores together, with school achievement making up 51 percent of the score and school growth the remaining 49 percent.

Classroom Supplies

Included in the House budget is a new plan unveiled by Superintendent Mark Johnson last month that would change the way teachers receive funding to purchase classroom supplies. The new plan would eliminate the current classroom and teacher supply fund and replace it with the Teacher Directed Classroom Supplies Allotment. Rather than the state purchasing materials in bulk and then distributing materials to local LEAs, teachers would use a smart phone app to purchase textbooks and other supplies specifically for their classrooms. Teachers would receive a total of $145.00 per classroom beginning in August of this year. The allotment rounds out to a total of $15 billion each year of the biennium.

While the program was included in the House’s budget proposal and introduced to legislators through SB 580: Classroom Supplies to Teachers, it has not come without its fair share of pushback from North Carolina Teacher of the Year winners and several members of the State Board of Education. Those opposed to the new plan do not support it because they claim that the fund would only be reallocating existing money, rather than providing additional funding to teachers. Some teachers have argued that the new plan’s allotment would not go far enough in their individual classrooms. During a State Board of Education meeting in April, several board members, including Lisa Godwin and Freebird McKinney, voiced their concerns about the bill, and about the program more generally.

Those who support the plan, such as Sen. Andy Wells (R-Catawba), believe that this change is needed because some school districts have misspent money for classroom supplies. Supporters say that this plan will ensure the money is spent on classroom supplies and not on other things school districts have on their to do lists.

Charter Schools

In 2015, North Carolina lawmakers established a 4-year pilot program for two virtual public charter school NC Connections Academy and NC Virtual Academy. In 2019, both pilots received 4-year extensions. When the General Assembly extended the pilots, however, they neglected to specify what would happen with enrollment in the schools. During the initial 4 years, the schools were permitted to grow their enrollments by 20 percent per year (from a 1500 students per school start) – the same growth that is allowed traditional public charter schools. The additional 4 year extension did not explicitly allow the 20 percent growth to continue, meaning both schools could be capped at their current maximum enrollment of 2,592 students.

On May 1, in a 25-18 vote that was mostly along party lines, Senators voted to lift the cap on the virtual charter schools’ enrollment and allow the 20 percent per school year growth that many say was intended when the pilots were extended. This was among other charter school provisions contained in SB 522: Various Changes to Charter School Laws.

The Charter School Advisory Board met Monday to discuss the pilot-programs enrollment cap. The Board agreed with the legislative changes in SB 522, with members noting that, while the argument can be made that low-performing schools, which the two pilots have been categorized by the state as being, should not be able to increase enrollment at all, if the 20 percent growth rate is how all other public charter schools are being treated, than the virtual pilot-programs should be subject to the same rules.

In the budget proposal passed through the House last week, a $1 billion appropriation was included to fund another virtual learning pilot program for three years. This program is aimed at providing access to quality preschool education for at-risk children.   

Additionally, a omnibus Charter School legislation passed through the Senate the week of May 6. Senate Bill 123: Portability of Leave/Charter Schools allows sick leave to be transferred between a Charter School and a local school administrative unit and Senate Bill 354:  Student Notice/Charter School Closure/Restr. which would require notice to parents prior to closing a Charter School or materially revising its charter. Both bills now await their fate in the House Rules Committee.

Testing Reduction

The Senate moved their plan to reduce the number of exams given to North Carolina public school students through the crossover deadline. SB 621: Testing Reduction Act of 2019 would eliminate N.C. final exams for high school students by 2021, directing the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction to come up with other methods of assessment. The bill requires all LEAs to assess the amount of time needed for each exam administered every two years, unless the school system can show that they are complying with all local tests, not just state tests, and are showing adequate progress. DPI would also be tasked with coming up with a series of new tests to measure third grade reading proficiency levels.

State Board of Education Vice Chair Alan Duncan, was present during the bill’s final committee hearing in the Senate and spoke in favor it. He commented that the State Board has recently approved changes to the amount and type of testing given to students throughout the state, changes that align with the objectives of S 621 and that are scheduled to become effective in June.

The House also has passed their version of testing reduction legislation. HB 377: Reduce Testing also would eliminate North Carolina Final Exams as well as End-of-Grade (EOG) testing for third through eighth graders. The bill would task the State Board of Education to come up with a plan to administer three interim assessments for those students instead. High school students would also no longer be required to complete high school graduation projects as a prerequisite for graduation.

Reading Proficiency

A bill presented by Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), aimed at overhauling the state’s Read to Achieve program, has passed the Senate. SB 438: Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 includes three main objectives, all with the same theme: replicate the areas in which Read to Achieve is working well and make adjustments to the areas where it is not.

The first part of S 438 would establish individualized reading plans for students. Teachers would create individualized plans for each student struggling to meet grade level in reading. The bill would establish online, digital resources for parents to use to work with their students at home, outside of the classroom. The second section of the bill would create summer reading camps. The camps’ curriculum would have to receive approval from the Department of Public Instruction and would incentivize current and retired teachers to staff the camps in hopes of recruiting the best teachers throughout the state. The incentives would include an additional $2,000 bonus to retired teachers who come back for the summer and extra credits for teachers who work at the camps to go towards keeping their teaching license. Finally, the bill would renew and expand the partnership with Wolfpack Works and establish a partnership with other higher education entities, such as various community colleges and the UNC System, in order to provide proper teacher training.

Opportunity Scholarship Program

The Senate voted 27-18, in Senate Bill 609: K-12 Scholarship Changes, to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP provides grants of up to $4,200 a year to parents who earn up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level so that those parents can send their children to a private school of their choice. S 609 raises the income eligibility level to 150 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill also lifts a cap that prohibited more than 40 percent of scholarships from going to students in kindergarten and 1st grade. There has been a waiting list for those grade levels.