Despite 13 weeks of teachers union protests, North Carolina passed into law a state budget that makes thousands of poor children eligible for vouchers, eliminates K-12 tenure, ends automatic pay increases for master’s degrees, and creates an A-F public school grading system. It also adds $23 million to the state’s $11 billion in annual education spending.
“If there’s any way to tell if a budget is good, it’s the teacher union’s eagerness to sue over it,” said Terry Stoops, a senior analyst for the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation.
Hours after the $20.6 billion budget passed on July 26, the North Carolina Association of Educators threatened to pursue legal action over its elimination of tenure in favor of one-year contracts.
Two New Voucher Programs
North Carolina is now one of the thirteen states that offer K-12 vouchers, and one of nine that offer vouchers to special-needs students.
The special-needs voucher passed in its own standalone bill in July. It will allocate up to $6,000 per student per year to families with special-needs students. It is estimated to cost up to $3.7 million this upcoming year. Average per-pupil spending for special-needs students in public schools is more than twice the amount of the voucher.
The low-income voucher, also known as an “opportunity scholarship,” will allocate up to $4,200 to each eligible student, up to $10 million total. The law aims to distribute vouchers to as many as 7,000 students in 2014-2015. Families who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch are eligible, meaning a family of four that makes up to $43,568 a year.
Protesting on ‘Moral Mondays’
For 13 weeks, NCAE held weekly protests at the General Assembly. NCAE members called them “Moral Mondays.” Although the legislature is out of session, police estimated more than 5,000 people protested the budget on Monday, August 5.
“Since North Carolina is a Right to Work state, the NCAE is weak when it comes to collective bargaining,” Stoops said. “But the membership is strong [politically].”
Tenure will be phased out by 2018. Stoops said most claims about eliminating teacher tenure have been “overblown.” He does not expect an increase in layoffs when the education reforms begin to take effect.
“I doubt we will see widespread firings because of tenure eliminations in North Carolina,” Stoops said. “I think this is going to affect a small group of teachers that have no business being in a classroom. Frankly, they’re doing a disservice by delivering low-quality instruction.”
Research consistently finds no connection between receiving a master’s degree and teacher quality, said Marguerite Roza of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Her research shows financial incentives to earn a master’s degree through union-supported automatic bonuses for the credential yield little improvement in the classroom.
“A lot of master’s degrees have nothing to do with what the teacher ends up teaching,” she said.
North Carolina teachers with master’s degree salaries will remain on that pay scale, but new public school teachers will no longer receive automatic pay increases for the degree.
“The research from the left and the right comes to the same conclusion,” Stoops said. “There is no connection between master’s degrees and performance. We need to reconstruct the way we pay teachers: pay on effectiveness, not credentials.”
The A-F Grading System
Although public schools have been publicly reviewed for several years, Stoops says the system did not mean much to parents.
“We have graded schools in the past by using esoteric terms that parent’s wouldn’t understand—like ‘school of progress’ or ‘school of distinction,'” he said. “These terms are meaningless.”
Replacing confusing terms with an A-F grading system will serve the same function as the previous grading system, but in simpler terms that taxpayers will understand, he said. The grading system will account for student performance and growth that will be quantifiable through standardized tests.
Private schools will not be subject to A-F grades.
“The philosophy is that there are two different ways to hold a school accountable,” Stoops said. “You can hold them accountable through tests and grades, or you can hold them accountable through parents. The idea is that parents will hold schools accountable for performance.”
‘Historic Year for Education Reform’
In 2013-2014, a legislative report estimates state K-12 spending will top $7.6 billion, more than 4 percent above last year.
Although the state’s budget typically allocates more than one third of its funds to K-12 education, North Carolina ranks 48th in the country for K-12 per pupil spending.
“The budget and reforms that passed [are] a win for parents,” said Stoops. “I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say this year will be a historic year for education reform.”
For more than 100 years, Democrats ran North Carolina’s legislature and resisted school choice, Stoops said. But in 2010, Republicans won the majority in both legislative houses. Two years later, North Carolina elected its first Republican governor in 20 years.
“If you would have told me in 2009 that North Carolina would pass two voucher programs and charter school reforms, I would have laughed and dismissed it,” Stoops said. “In the span of two years, there has been complete reform. That’s why I say, ‘Never say never.'”
Image by North Carolina National Guard.