RALEIGH, N.C. – Lawmakers are rolling up their sleeves after the Senate passed its budget 32-15 on Thursday. Differences will be hashed out in conference committees, something that insiders are predicting will take quite a while.
“We may be sending Christmas cards before this is over,” said House Majority Leader Mike Hager (R-Rutherford).
Education funding is one of the biggest differences between the House and Senate budgets. The Senate spends about $400 million less that the House on education, coming in at $12.2 billion. The House education budget is $12.6 billion.
The chambers are particularly far apart in compensation plans. While both budgets boost starting teacher pay to $35,000, a roughly 4 percent raise, the Senate flat-lines pay for teachers who have more than 25 years experience. Raising the starting teacher salary has been educators’ drumbeat issue for years.
“You see a commitment to teachers in both budgets,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore (R-Wilkes), chairman of the House K-12 Education Committee. “The House gives minimum across-the-board, 2 percent raises to everyone at all experience levels. The Senate takes a more targeted approach.”
The Senate also mandates smaller class sizes in early grades. Their budget requires a 1:17 ratio for kindergarten and a 1:15 ratio for grades 1-3. Research has shown that this size optimizes student performance.
“The goal is getting them reading well by third grade,” said Senator Andrew Brock (R-Davie). “Studies have shown that if they can’t read by third grade they get lost in the system. That is why the smaller class size is important.”
To pay for it, they move teacher assistant funding into the teacher funding line item. The House budget fully funds the allotment for TAs, but allows the local school systems to spend it elsewhere if needed.
“We will end up somewhere in the middle. This is part of the process,” said Hager. “We have to figure out where the line is; do two teacher assistant salaries pay for one teacher? Or half a teacher? We have to figure out what puts the most and best resources in the classroom.”
The minutia in both budgets is part of a larger education reform strategy. Last session, legislators rolled out a multi-year educator compensation and career ladder strategy. They also launched the first steps to better identify and address struggling schools. The House education budget writers say part of that strategy should be to decentralize education decision-making.
“As Republicans, our goal in all policy should be local control. Move the education decisions to the local school board and parents,” said Elmore. “We need less micromanagement from Raleigh.”
The Senate budget also codifies the 1997 Leandro v. Board of Education decisions. In Leandro, the court said that, under the state constitution, all North Carolina students have the right to a “basic and sound education.” What that is and how to achieve it has been debated in court and the General Assembly ever since.
To meet the Leandro requirements, the Senate budget says that all schools with a D or F in the new grading system must present a measurable plan for improvement. Critics say the new grading system requirements cast too large a net, pulling most N.C. schools into it. They worry that resources will be spread too thin and the lowest performing schools may actually lose money.
The Senate gives the State Board of Education more control over those low-performing schools, saying they cannot deviate at all from what the state board directs. Opponents of that centralized approach say it does not address the diverse sizes and needs of North Carolina schools.
“We tried that 20 years ago under Hunt and we’ve been digging out from under those policies ever since,” said Elmore. “It will not create the innovation and flexibility our education system needs.”