Opinion: Carolina Beat

A Good Start to a New School Year

RALEIGH — As the result of actions taken during the 2014 legislative short session, the school year begins with more money for teachers, more students attending schools of their choice, and more focus on what is happening in the classroom.

Most of the talk about education during this legislative session focused on the landmark $282 million teacher pay increase (and yes, every North Carolina teacher will get more money in her paycheck this year).

A 37-step pay system has been replaced with a six-step program encouraging the best and brightest to enter teaching, with more emphasis on recruiting and retaining excellence and less on paying for length of service. Out-of-state teachers no longer start at the first-year level, but at the step level they had been reached in their previous state. This new system attracts and retains the best teachers, rewards success in the classroom, and makes teacher pay transparent.

The 2014 K-12 education budget increases spending by $240 million, a 3 percent increase over last year. Spending has grown by $1 billion since 2010-11. Under the last five years of Democratic control, education spending went up by 8.2 percent. Under four years of Republican leadership, it has increased by 13.7 percent.

Comparisons should account for enrollment growth and inflation, but any way you cut it, overall spending on education increased this year. But, as we know, spending more does not always mean better outcomes for students.

Education reform is more than how much money is spent or how much teachers are paid. Reform in 2014 means more options, more opportunities, and more focus on results in the classroom than ever before. It means a better value for taxpayers, a better-qualified work force for employers, and a better education for students.

Twenty-six new public charter schools with innovative curriculums open their doors for the 2014-15 school year. There are 127 charter schools operating in North Carolina, located in 60 of our 115 school districts. Mecklenburg County has the most charters with 23, Wake follows with 16, and Durham is third with 11.

Charter schools are incubators of innovation and creativity, serving unique needs in education. Two new virtual charter schools will offer courses to elementary and secondary students, enrolling up to 1,500 students per school in year one and 2,592 by year four. Another will establish a two-year dropout-prevention program to re-engage students and increase graduation rates.

In 2013, the General Assembly established opportunity scholarships, giving low-income children the opportunity to attend a private school with a $4,200 annual voucher. More than 5,000 children applied for the available spots. With such high demand, the 2014-15 budget added another $850,000 so more scholarships could offer more opportunities.

Just as the school year kicked off and with nearly 2,000 students set to begin at 300 private schools across the state, a Superior Court judge halted the program, saying it violates the state constitution. The ruling is under appeal and most likely will reach the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, thousands of low-income children have been denied the educational options they were promised. State leaders fight to ensure that options are preserved for those students who want them.

Although many families are taking advantage of choices in education, most North Carolina students still choose to attend their traditional district school. Additional reforms promise to make our traditional schools among the best in the nation.

Lawmakers rejected the federal mandates under Common Core and erased them entirely from our state statutes. An academic standards commission appointed by the governor, the speaker of the House, and the leader of the Senate will work with the State Board of Education to review, evaluate, and create a set of academic standards that will be the most rigorous in the country.

Lawmakers reduced kindergarten and first-grade class sizes. They took measures to ensure the privacy and security of student educational records, protect data, and prohibit the collection of political and religious information.

This General Assembly affirmed the right of public school students and personnel to prayer and religious activity at their schools. It also created a grievance process for those who believe their school has violated their religious rights.

The General Assembly delivered on the promise of a landmark teacher pay increase this year — but the educational reforms of more choice, more accountability, and better outcomes constitute an educational investment that will pay off over the long term.

Becki Gray (@beckigray) is vice president for outreach at the John Locke Foundation.