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Familiar Debates Over Funding, Teacher Pay Likely to Dominate Public Education Policy in 2023

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By Greg Childress, NC Policy Watch

The new year in K-12 education is likely to look a lot like the past year with the Leandro school funding lawsuit and a controversial teacher and licensure proposal likely among the key issues North Carolina lawmakers will debate when their 2023 “long session” begins later this month.

Both topics garnered lots of attention toward the end of 2022.

In November, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling and ordered the General Assembly to hand over millions of dollars to pay for a long overdue school improvement plan.

The court’s Democratic majority ruled that the legislature must fund Years Two and Three of an eight-year, $5.6 billion school improvement plan. The plan calls for high-quality teachers and principals, improvements to school finance and accountability systems, and early childhood education programs, among others.

The plan called $1.75 billion in spending during its second and third years, but the state budget lawmakers approved in 2022 only partially funded it. State budget officials have estimated that nearly $800 million in the comprehensive plan is unfunded for years two and three.

The Leandro case began nearly three decades ago when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson and Vance counties joined Halifax County in the lawsuit.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

As Policy Watch previously reported, despite those rulings, there has been little progress toward fulfilling previous court orders. Conservative justices and lawmakers argue that the court does not have the authority to order the legislature to pay for the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, which grew out of education consultant WestEd’s examination of the state’s public schools and the work of the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.

The judge overseeing the Leandro ruling will be different in 2023. Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby assigned Cumberland County Superior Court Judge James F. Ammons to the case late last month.

Ammons replaces Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson, a Business Court Judge, who requested to be removed from the case, citing a heavy workload.

Licensure and pay

In December, the State Board of Education approved a Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) proposal to revamp teacher licensure and pay structures, with hopes of addressing a teacher shortage problem fueled by low pay and tough working conditions.

The General Assembly, which must approve and fund the licensure and pay proposal, will presumably take it up during the long session.

Lawmakers will certainly hear from educators who see the proposal as an unwanted shift from a seniority-based teacher salary system to one that partially rewards teachers for student performance on state exams. Teachers contend the shift would be a move to a system of merit pay, which they oppose.

In addition to Leandro and merit pay, expect state lawmakers to spend considerable time on the recommendations handed down by the House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future. The committee, which spent months studying and traveling the state for its report, shared findings and recommendations with the General Assembly last month. The report calls for redesigning the system the state uses to assess student achievement, increasing teacher pay, and shifting more power from the State Board of Education to the state superintendent.

Power shift

After a fruitful midterm election, Republicans now hold enough seats in the state Senate to override a veto without help from Democrats. The GOP is also one vote shy of a veto-proof majority in the House.

Some state political pundits expect Republicans to reintroduce controversial legislation such as the “Parents Bill of Rights.” Modeled after similar legislation in Florida, the bill would ban mentions of sexual orientation and gender identity from the K-3 curriculum. It would also require teachers and support staff to notify parents if a student questions their sexual identity. The state Senate approved the bill during the last session but it stalled in the House. Gov. Roy Cooper would have likely vetoed the bill had it made it to his desk.

Charter expansion

Expect more discussion about the state’s system of charter schools in the new year. State education leaders undoubtedly expect further expansion of charter schools. NCDPI and the state board will request three new positions for the Office of Charter Schools in its legislative request for the 2023 long session to help oversee charter schools as their number increase to well over 200. The request includes funding for an assistant director, a Read to Achieve early learning coordinator and a regional bus inspector.

A peek at other NCDPI and state board legislative requests provides additional insight into education priorities that will likely spark discussion during the long session.

NCDPI and the state board will likely ask for nearly $234 million in additional funding in 2024 and nearly $193 million in 2025.

The money would be used to improve digital teaching and learning, connect schools to high-speed internet and enhance cyber security, improve operations at district levels and eliminate co-pays for reduced-price meals.

State education leaders will also ask for additional money to establish a permanent Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration division. The office was created using federal COVID relief funds to help students get back on track academically.