- This year’s “short session” will focus on bills approved by one of the Chambers last year
- Teacher pay will be the headline issue
- Other key issues will likely include: funding for charter schools, school-choice vouchers, teacher recruitment, and limiting political activity of school employees while using public resources
The 2016 legislative session is only a few weeks away. Since this is an even-numbered year, the session is referred to as a “short session.” That generally means the number of bills that will be considered will be limited to those that made crossover – those bills that were passed in 2015 by either the House or Senate.
The main focus of short sessions is the budget bill and making whatever adjustments are necessary to the second year of the biennium. One other reality of the short session is it’s an election year. Legislators are less likely to consider controversial legislation and more likely to consider actions that might help them get elected. Additionally, most lawmakers will want to deal with legislative business as expeditiously as possible because they want to be out campaigning.
That said, the upcoming legislative session will still be important for those interested in the education landscape in North Carolina. Here’s an incomplete list of some of the topics the legislature may consider in the upcoming short session.
Teacher Pay. It’s the issue that won’t go away. Even with pay increases to boost starting salaries the last two years and the largest average teacher pay increase (7 percent) in the country, there is a sense legislators are not done with the teacher pay issue. Gov. Pat McCrory recently proposed a 5 percent pay increase for teachers and 3.5 percent bonus pay for veteran teachers. Legislative leaders have yet to comment on the governor’s plan. However, legislative leaders such as House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Senate Education Chairman Jerry Tillman have stated that they would probably prefer teacher pay proposals in the 2 to 3 percent range. The differences will keep things interesting – and may provide enough room to meet somewhere in the middle. We’ll see.
Charter Schools. This past session provided a lot of activity on charter schools. (See: HB 334.) Still, there is a lot left to consider. One of the most significant topics regarding charter schools is financing. Analysis from the NC Treasurer’s Office and the NC Department of Public Instruction revealed that nearly 70,000 students in public charter schools – on average—receive only about 73 percent of local current expense funding received by district students on a statewide basis. The difference amounts to about $33 million dollars annually. Last session HB 539 was intended to remedy this problem. The bill expanded the array of local fund categories that would have to be shared with charter schools. Versions of the bill passed both chambers last session, but the House and Senate still need to work out their differences on this legislation. You may see another version emerge this year.
Vouchers. Many teachers and parents believe North Carolina’s Special Needs Scholarship Program is underfunded. The program has many more applicants than available spaces. Apparently, McCrory feels the same way. In early April the governor revealed his plan to provide $5 million to expand the Special Needs Scholarship Program by an additional 300 new students. This is a positive move that would enable more parents to find the best educational environmental for their special needs child.
School Performance Grades. The North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation requiring the state to grade all public schools with an A-F system beginning with the 2013-14 school year. Though this is understandably an imperfect system, the goal was to give parents additional information when evaluating educational option for their children. Some educators believe the current system relies too heavily on testing. HB 803, approved by the House last session, changes how performance grades are calculated. The bill makes the grade a combination of 50 percent test scores and 50 percent student growth. Currently grades are a combination of 80 percent test scores and 20 percent student growth.
Teacher Recruitment. One of the biggest issues facing North Carolina is how to prepare and retain teachers, especially in hard-to-staff areas such as math, science and special education. A number of proposals have been floating around to develop teacher scholarship programs, similar to the Teaching Fellows program. McCrory’s education plan includes $2 million in funding to attract new and highly qualified math and science teachers. The program also provides scholarships to 300 students to attend in-state universities to teach math and science in the state’s public schools. Moreover, HB 661 is the legislative remedy to the problem. The bill passed the House last session, but failed to get out of the Senate. The legislation funds the recruitment and preparation of 1,000 new teachers in math, science and special education to serve in the state’s hardest-to-staff areas. In exchange for service in hard-to-staff areas, recipients would be given debt-forgiveness. Teacher recruitment is a pressing need, especially in hard-to-staff disciplines and certain geographical areas. While attention is needed, we need to make sure that legislation doesn’t merely replicate existing programs like Teach for America.
Turning Around Low Performing Schools – Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) of Charlotte offers Achievement School Districts (ASD) as a means to turnaround low-performing schools. ASDs are comprised of five low-performing schools chosen from the bottom 25 percent of all schools in the district. ASD will force the local school board to either close the school or transfer governance from a local school board or the ASD. The ASD would have a third-party organization take over the management and operations of the local school. The local school board would remain responsible for transportation and building maintenance. ASD programs in other states have shown promise. ASD was originally part of SB 95, passed by the Senate but stalled in the House. Considering the magnitude of the issue, the House decided to create a Select Committee on Achievement School Districts to further study the issue. Some form of additional action could be likely this spring.
Political Activity by School Employees – Several incidents of lobbying in the schools by education organizations brought this issue to light. SB 480 bans issue advocacy during the school day on school equipment and email accounts by all school employees except principals, superintendents and other designated school leaders. The bill passed the Senate with significant exceptions and is still under consideration in the House.
These are just a few of the education topics the North Carolina General Assembly will likely consider when it returns for the 2016 floor session. At Civitas, we are working to ensure our schools and colleges emphasize academic excellence, are responsive to public needs and embrace true accountability and reform. We’ll be watching.
For an in-depth review of North Carolina Education policy dating back to 1985, check out the Civitas Institute’s Learning the Lesson; A Guide to North Carolina Education Policy.