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9:14 am
Wed July 31, 2013

NC Explainer: Education Changes

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North Carolina laws are changing, from what you need to vote, to which clinics can provide abortions, to how teachers keep their jobs. The General Assembly passed many of the new laws last week at the very end of the legislative session. So every day this week, WFAE is examining some of the major changes. We've covered gun legislation and abortion regulations so far. This morning we focus on education.

There were a lot of new education changes that passed either in bills or through the budget. That includes getting rid of teacher tenure and including money for vouchers for kids to attend private schools. But some of those changes shouldn't be a surprise.

Republican leaders have been working on them for the past two years. Getting rid of tenure is an example. Tenure can make it harder to fire a teacher, but it’s not like what you think of in universities.  But lawmakers didn’t have enough movement to get rid of that last year, so they took it up again this year. And it passed. 

Why Changes Are Happening Now

Republicans have been in charge for the past few years and they’re going off a model in Florida that Republicans pushed there and that other states are trying out.  Last year, lawmakers here decided to require schools to hold back students who can’t read at grade-level by the end of third grade.

That’s a Florida thing, that’s going to just take effect this coming school year. This year we see it with vouchers. The state will give low to moderate income families $4,200 to send their children to private schools. Supporters say the idea behind vouchers is that parents won’t be forced to send their children to nearby schools that are struggling.

But tuition for many private schools is much higher than $4,200 - often double that. So it’s tough to say how useful that will be to families. The budget sets aside $10 million for vouchers next school year and that will likely expand the following year. 

Critics say that’s just siphoning money from public schools. 

One of those critics is CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison. He points out this taxpayer money is going to schools that aren’t held to the same standards as public schools. 

For example, starting this year public schools will get grades kind of like their students get - A through F.  Private schools won’t. And that grading is another example of something we got from Florida. Morrison said in a press conference last week he understands why states are looking to Florida as a model.

"But then they forget what also Florida did under Governor Jeb Bush," Morrison said. "They invested a huge amount of money in pre-K and kindergarten. And yet, many states that want to do the 'Florida model,' don't want to do that part because that's hugely expensive."

North Carolina lawmakers are providing money for an extra 2,500 kids to go to the state’s pre-K program this year, but that’s after deep cuts. And legislators did make some significant cuts to the cuts  to the education budget this year.

What Cuts Mean In The Classroom

The most noticeable cut will be to teacher assistants.  These are the people who can help students one-on-one or work with kids in small groups and even help lead class. It can be hard at times telling the assistant from the teacher. Lawmakers cut about a fifth of their state funding.

There are also cuts for teachers. All together, state superintendent June Atkinson says the budget could cost thousands of teacher and teacher assistant positions. That’s not the same thing as layoffs – schools often have vacant positions. CMS, for example, doesn’t expect to lay off teachers. But there’ll likely be larger class sizes.

And there are parts of education that lawmakers increased funding for. There’s an extra $7 million for school police officers in elementary and middle schools, as well as an extra $2 million for installing panic alarms.

Also, teachers will certainly notice their paychecks aren’t any bigger this year. But one of the changes lawmakers included in the budget is a $500 raise next year for the top performing teachers.  That’s a nod to the pay-for-performance system legislators want to set up, but the state is still working on a more comprehensive plan for that. 

Charter schools will also see some changes. For example, it'll be easier for them to expand. Charter schools will have can now add a grade without the approval of the state board of education. 

And at community colleges and universities, tuition will go up for some students. At community colleges, tuition for North Carolina residents will increase by a maximum of $80 per year. And at UNC-system schools, tuition for out-of-state students will go up either 12 percent or 6 percent, depending on which university you go to. The new state budget does not include an increase for in-state tuition.