RALEIGH — Although authorized spending on K-12 public education in the newly enacted state budget will increase by nearly 5 percent over the previous school year, opponents of education reform have orchestrated rallies, flooded the media, and vilified the Republican-dominated General Assembly for its sweeping agenda.
Lawmakers adopted a 2013-14 budget conference report authorizing $7.9 billion in General Fund spending on K-12 education, which is up 4.8 percent over the $7.5 billion budget enacted for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
“Since 2010, Republican legislators have made it clear that their policy agenda included a handful of core education reforms eventually incorporated into the budget,” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
“These include the expansion of parental choice, elimination of teacher tenure and certain pay supplements, implementation of a school grading system, and development of a performance pay system for school personnel,” Stoops said. “Simply put, this budget is the culmination of an education reform agenda that had been laid out for the last three years.”
Acknowledging there are naysayers who claim that the reforms are an attempt to destroy public education, Stoops said: “The truth is that these reforms discard or dismantle policies approved decades ago at the behest of a handful of special interest groups. Legislators both modernized and diversified public education in North Carolina.”
Now comes the hard part, he said.
“Status-quo teachers and administrators, along with the advocacy groups that support them, will do everything in their power to undermine these new policies during their implementation. As such, Republican legislators must remain vigilant,” Stoops said. “Otherwise, these worthwhile reforms will flounder through no fault of their own.”
Overall General Fund allocations to education increase the share of spending on education from 55 percent of the General Fund budget last year to 56 percent this year.
Preliminary estimates from the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division suggest education spending for the fiscal year that just ended will be about $7.7 billion — roughly $200 million more than budgeted — due to teacher retirement and health plans costs, among other expenses. That additional $200 million was taken from state reserves authorized for FY 2012-13. Such expenses have historically been excluded in budget authorizations for K-12 education at the beginning of a fiscal year because it is impossible to make an accurate projection of how much will be required for those purposes. Additional money is spent as needed. For that reason, it also is likely that actual K-12 spending during the 2013-14 fiscal year will be higher than the $7.9 billion budgeted, which is why fiscal analysts have traditionally measured annual changes in spending as authorized-to-authorized — or, after the fact, as actual-to-actual.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, teachers, and public school advocates disparaged the budget.
“For the first time in my career of more than 30 years in public education, I am truly worried about students in our care,” Atkinson said in a statement. “North Carolina has moved away from its commitment to quality public schools. I am disappointed for the children in our state who will have fewer educators and resources in their schools as a result of the General Assembly’s budget.”
“The cries of doom and gloom from the left surrounded the budget process from start to finish,” Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said in a constituent newsletter.
“If you bought into their fear-mongering, you were convinced that public education in North Carolina was flat out going to shut down,” he wrote. “The bottom line is that we are funding education in North Carolina.”
Some of the most noteworthy legislative reforms were designed to provide more flexibility to school districts to address their specific needs locally, a goal that Tillman vigorously pursued as a way to bring about improvements to one-size-fits-all, top-down education.
They also were part of Senate leader Phil Berger’s Excellent Public Schools Act in 2012.
Those included instructional reforms. Lawmakers replaced guaranteed lifetime tenure for teachers with a contract system based on job performance. A dual benefit to the system, advocates said, would be to ensure quality instruction by identifying ineffective teachers who need to be retrained or replaced.
The most effective teachers would be rewarded through a merit pay system, and there is $10.2 million in the budget to reward high-performing teachers with $500 bonuses.
“I have yet to see a merit pay system in the United States work,” Atkinson said when similar legislation in 2012 failed to become law.
Other reforms included an A-through-F school grading system based on student achievement and growth, graduation rates, and enrollment in accelerated coursework. Atkinson opposed that reform last year out of concern it could stigmatize a school, its faculty, and students.
A push to strengthen K-3 literacy is part of $23.6 million in funding for the Excellent Public Schools Act approved last summer, and $5.1 million will be allocated to expand Teach for America, an organization that recruits and trains teachers for high-need areas. The bulk of the recruits will be positioned in the Triad area.
Dan Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.