After taking simultaneous control of both chambers of the legislature and the governorship for the first time in 140 years, North Carolina Republicans have moved aggressively on K-12 policy this year, with swift—and divisive—action on school choice and teacher policy against a backdrop of continued statewide budget woes.
In addition to creating a new $10 million statewide voucher program, GOP lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory ended teacher tenure, cut teacher bonuses for master’s degrees, and expanded Teach For America funding by just over $5 million.
Explaining the state’s changes in teacher policy, for example, Senate President Phil Berger, a Republican, told the state chamber of commerce in an Aug. 1 speech: “Our focus shouldn’t be on ensuring that bad teachers keep their jobs. Rather, it must be on making sure students can get a job after they graduate.”
But action in the legislative session that adjourned July 26 has triggered warnings of damage to teacher morale, recruitment, and retention. It also added heat to protests in Raleigh, the state capital, by those opposed to the conservative tilt of legislation on education and other topics.
“What they’re going to see as a result of some of these policy changes ... is going to be a mass exodus of educators from North Carolina,” said Rodney Ellis, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, a 49,100-member affiliate of the National Education Association.
A Choice or a Trick?
One of the most significant policy changes, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, was modeled in part on Florida’s school choice program, according to advocates, but the version signed into law July 26 by Gov. McCrory was scaled down from proposals in the original legislation.
The initial voucher bill would have made the aid available to students from families making up to three times the federal poverty level, or about $70,500 in household income for a family of four.
But the final version provides aid only to students participating in free and reduced-price meal programs in its first year, the 2014-15 school year, with a cap of 2,500 students that year. The maximum voucher value is $4,200 per student.
After the first year, the program will expand to students from families making up to 133 percent of the maximum income level for free and reduced-price meals, with lower tuition assistance for those students above 100 percent of the maximum income threshold. (Families of four are eligible for reduced-price meals if their household income is about $42,600 a year or less, and for free meals if their annual income is about $30,000 or less.)
Karen Duquette, the vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a Raleigh-based group that supports school choice, stressed that every year, half of all students receiving the vouchers must be eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
“We’re confident that that’s a good start,” Ms. Duquette said of the voucher program.
Two of the four primary sponsors of voucher legislation were Democrats (the voucher program was ultimately folded into state budget language). State Rep. Marcus Brandon, one of those Democrats, said he negotiated with Republicans to make sure the final voucher plan focused more on low-income students.
Mr. Brandon said school choice would provide immediate, real help to low-income students at struggling schools, unlike lobbying for the “fantasy” of getting strong state financial support for needy schools. And he acknowledged that his might be seen as an unconventional political position by a Democrat.
“Talking to Democrats about education reform is just about as difficult as talking to Republicans about gay marriage,” said Mr. Brandon, who noted that he is gay.
But Mr. Ellis, the state teachers’ union president, argued that a few Democrats like Mr. Brandon were wrongly persuaded by school choice proponents into believing that by supporting vouchers they were acting to help students. In fact, Mr. Ellis said, they were sacrificing the public K-12 system to help just a small fraction of students. Eventually, he predicted, voucher advocates will expand the program so much that truly disadvantaged students will be crowded out.
“This is one of those sleight-of-hand tricks,” Mr. Ellis said.
The Teaching Profession
The shake-up for laws governing teachers and their pay made some of the biggest waves, and teachers were prominent among the protestors at the weekly rallies that became known as Moral Monday events.
Under the state’s new teacher-contract rules, teachers can be offered only one-year contracts during their first three years on the job, and after that, can be offered at most a four-year contract.
Unlike the voucher program, which was foreshadowed somewhat by a tax-credit scholarship program proposed last year, the elimination of bonuses for master’s degrees took observers by surprise.
“In my opinion, the biggest potential change to the workforce is going to be the state’s commitment to paying teachers,” said Leanne Winner, the director of governmental relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association.
A report to the state board of education in March ranked the state 46th in teacher pay.
State lawmakers also stirred controversy among some teachers by increasing funding for Teach For America’s operations by $5.1 million in each of the next two fiscal years (total state funding for TFA will be $6 million annually). A study of TFA released by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last year said members of the privately organized teacher corps were more effective than their counterparts in 94 of 129 comparisons examined. But it also said fewer than 10 percent of TFA members stay in public schools for as long as five years.
The arguments over teacher pay and vouchers are part of a muddy K-12 finance picture. Sen. Berger said the budget approved this year spends $360 million more on public schools than the previous budget.
But the state education department released a report this month showing that in the biennial budget for fiscal 2014 and 2015, public schools actually received a 2.9 percent cut in spending from the funding baseline established in the previous budget, or a $234 million drop, down to about $7.9 billion, at the same time that enrollment has been increasing.
Despite signing the controversial bills backed by fellow Republicans in the legislature, Gov. McCrory has shown a willingness to take unexpected positions or move against some K-12 political headwinds, at least in public statements.
For example, he has backed the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics, even as some conservatives across the country and in North Carolina, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, attack them.
Mr. McCrory, who previously was the mayor of Charlotte, might be burnishing his credentials as a pro-business “Charlotte Republican,” at a time when many private-sector leaders like the standards, said Eric A. Houck, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of education.
In a speech this month, the governor outlined a proposal to reward “master teachers” with extra pay. But he also voiced concern about “turning our teachers into proctors” through too much standardized testing and pledged to reduce the overall amount of such testing.
“A lot of folks now at the end of the session are confused by Governor McCrory,” Mr. Houck said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2013 edition of Education Week as GOP Moves on Activist K-12 Agenda in N.C.