Now that the North Carolina General Assembly has convened its 2015 session, let’s look at what legislators have done over the last four years to improve our public schools and consider what they still have to do.
Under Republican leadership, school choice received its most significant boost in years. Lawmakers passed legislation creating two private school voucher programs, one for special-needs children and another for low-income families. Legislators eliminated the 100-school cap on charter schools, eased enrollment restrictions, and improved the charter school approval process. They also initiated a pilot program allowing two virtual charter schools to begin offering courses to elementary and secondary school students later this year.
North Carolina families have more and better choices than ever before, but still only two groups — the wealthy and the lucky — are able to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children. Voucher funding caps, obsolete charter school rules, opposition to virtual charter schools, and burdensome regulations continue to act as barriers to the broad availability of public and private educational options.
In addition to providing an average 7 percent pay increase for classroom teachers, legislators restructured a statewide teacher salary schedule that had changed little since the 1920s. They eliminated wasteful supplements for master’s degrees and began transitioning from a tenure-based employment system to a performance-based teacher compensation system.
Legislators promised additional pay increases for beginning and veteran teachers in 2015, but further reforms are necessary. Lawmakers should establish a system providing additional compensation for teachers who boost student performance, assume leadership roles, teach high-need subjects, and/or teach in high-need schools. The size and timing of any pay raise, however, will depend on the amount of tax revenue received by the state and the always-unpredictable Medicaid budget.
There is near universal agreement that the state testing program is broken. Teachers, parents, and others have raised legitimate concerns about the quality of state-created tests. In 2013, the General Assembly passed a law requiring state education officials to seek legislative approval to adopt a new testing program.
To date, no alternatives have been advanced. Ideally, that inaction will unite Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders in an effort to replace the current testing regime with an established national assessment of student performance, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
Between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 fiscal years, state appropriations for the K-12 education budget grew by more than $1 billion in nominal dollars. Last year, the state legislature appropriated more than $8 billion to North Carolina’s public elementary and secondary schools. Local and federal funds added billions more.
Unfortunately, few North Carolinians know how much money our public schools spend each year. To increase transparency and accountability, lawmakers should require school districts to add a detailed graphic on each report card specifying the average per pupil expenditure for their child’s school, the source of the funding, and how it is spent. Many county governments provide comparable information on property tax bills, so there are existing models from which to choose.
As a longer-term initiative, legislators should consider adopting an alternative public school funding method. Currently, school districts receive state education funds based on a confusing allotment system. Lawmakers should simplify how the state determines budget allocations and deliver those funds via a block grant to school districts, thereby maximizing local control, or, ideally, allow the money to follow the child.
By building on the successes of the recent past, our legislators can further secure a better future for all North Carolinians.
Dr. Terry Stoops is Director of Research and Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.