Ever since Charles Aycock1 became known as the “education governor” in the early 1900s, North Carolina politicians have campaigned on being the strongest supporter of K-12 education.

It’s not just lip service — education is one of the most vital services that state government provides. So it’s not surprising that Gov. Jim Martin campaigned on “Good schools, good roads and good jobs”; Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt and Gov. Jim Holshouser teamed up to support full-day kindergarten; and Gov. Mike Easley signed into law the state’s first lottery, with money going toward public education2.

Jim Hunt reading to students as part of a summer reading program while campaigning for governor in 1976. Photo by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Since taking over control of the state legislature in 2011, Republicans have moved swiftly to implement their own ideas on K-12 education. They’ve taken quite a bit of heat for it. Here is some of the charged rhetoric that’s become the primary way the changes have been discussed.

Of course, Republicans have claimed substantial victories.

These two versions can’t both be true. So what’s the reality?

As always, it’s not quite black and white.

The N.C. Republican plan for education has centered around five key tenets:

  1. Raising the pay for beginning teachers.
  2. Ending teacher tenure, also known as “career status.”
  3. Lifting the cap on charter schools.
  4. Creating a voucher program for private and religious schools.
  5. Shrinking class sizes for grades K-3.

The legislature, with a veto-proof majority and (for most of the time, at least) a Republican governor, has implemented just about all of these things. The first four are all but done. No. 5 is the current battle being fought.

Have the changes been good for the state? Turns out that the answer comes down to reasonable differences of opinion. But no matter how you slice it, the reality is not nearly as dramatic as what you’re hearing.

We’ll take a look at each of the five tenets, but first, let’s start with some of the big picture numbers.

Buses heading to Baldwin Elementary in Hope Mills. Photo by Gerry Dincher via Flickr (Creative Commons)

North Carolina’s national education rankings have changed little under Republican control.

Let’s talk raw numbers first.

In 2011, K-12 education cost the state about $7.5 billion. In the most recent approved budget, that total had grown to $9 billion. So to say that Republicans have cut education funding is demonstrably false.

But North Carolina is a growing state and inflation skews comparisons between years. So that paints a woefully incomplete picture.

I scoured the National Education Association’s annual factbooks to try to find a more meaningful measure of the impact the last five years have had on North Carolina’s standing in the national education field.

Per student spending by the state was $8,572 in 2011, good for 45th in the nation. By 2016, it had climbed slightly, to $8,955 —jumping three places to No. 42.

The average teacher salary grew from $46,605 (41st) in 2011 to $47,941 (41st) in 2016.

So not much change, though legislative leaders have promised it will hit $50,000 this year. We’ll keep an eye on that.

It’s interesting to note that the growth in average salary between 2016 and what’s expected for 2017, according to the NEA, is 4% — the fastest growth in the nation3. Idaho came in second at 3%, and the U.S. average was 1%.

Photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr (Creative Commons)

And here’s an important bit of context: North Carolina, like many Southern states, has a school funding model that leans heavily on state money and brings in little or no local dollars. Up North, it’s much more common for local townships to have taxing authority solely for education or to impose assessments on property owners for school buildings. That doesn’t happen here.

And it shows up in the numbers. North Carolina ranks 10th for percentage of school money coming from state government: 59.2%. It ranks No. 41 in money from local government.

Overall, it’s OK to be dissatisfied with how North Carolina sits in the rankings on teacher pay and per-student spending.

But it’s not the result of any Republican slash-and-burn tactic. It’s been a long time in the making. Things appear to be getting better, not worse — at least with the raw numbers.

Now let’s move on to the tactics.

Raising pay for beginning teachers

This was one of the first priorities for the Republican legislature — raising pay in the early years of a teacher’s career. This set off a firestorm of criticism, saying it penalized teachers who had stayed in the classroom.

But there is a logic to it.

In the 2012-13 school year, the average starting teacher salary in North Carolina was $30,778 — an abysmal 48th in the country, ahead of only Missouri, Montana and South Dakota4.

Teachers could easily go work in South Carolina or Virginia (or get poached by Texas) and make significantly more money.

At the same time, turnover for beginning teachers is significantly higher — 12.78% versus 8.19%. Once you keep a teacher for three years, they’re much less likely to leave.

First-year teachers this year start at a much more respectable $35,000 per year, before any local supplements5. The salary then goes to $36,000 in year two.

The legislature later shifted to rewarding later-career teachers. In the most recent budget, for example, the largest raises went to teachers with between nine and 14 years of experience. First-year teachers got no further raise.

It’s reasonable to believe that teachers should get pay raises across the board instead of weighing it toward early-career teachers. But it’s not a war against teachers. It’s a trade-off that reflects the Republican philosophy.

The N.C. legislative building. Photo by Brad Barth via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Ending teacher tenure

For several decades, teachers could get something known as “career status” after working four years. This gave them due process rights protecting them from dismissal except for documented poor performance, insubordination or dereliction of duty. Teachers could challenge their firings.

Republicans came in with the goal of ending this system and instituting a contract-based system. The idea is that it should be easier to remove teachers who are not effective in the classroom.

The court system ended up ruling that teachers who had earned career status couldn’t have it taken away, but new teachers could enter a system that didn’t have it.

Despite thousands more teachers entering the workforce without these protections, teacher firings have stayed pretty steady, or even decreased, under the Republican legislature.

In 2015-16, the most recent year for which data is available, only 703 teacher departures (8.1% of teachers who left their jobs) was initiated by their school district — a nice way of saying they were pushed out.

That compares with 982 (6.9%) in 2014-15 and 1,123 (8.2%) in 2013-14.

Before Republicans implemented these changes, the figure was 10 percent in 2010-11 and the same in 2011-12.

However, the state does cite evidence that teachers with lower test scores for their students are leaving more readily.

This move has arguably made teachers’ job security more in doubt. But it does not appear to be translating to actual job losses6.

Lifting the cap on charter schools

This is a big one that has reshaped the landscape of North Carolina education.

For many years, North Carolina had a cap set at 100 on the number of charter schools that could operate in the state. Republicans eliminated the cap and set up a system where potential schools could apply through the Department of Public Instruction to get a charter.

Charter schools are public schools that are free from many of the regulations on traditional school districts, including school calendar and some aspects of curriculum. Parents have to choose to send their children to these schools, and Republicans have said that market forces will make sure they’re effective.

Charter schools have boomed — a pretty clear sign that families were waiting for more choice. This year, there are 173 charter schools in operation.

Since 2011, North Carolina public schools have added roughly 100,000 students — growing from about 1.47 million to 1.55 million average daily membership (including charters). Only about 15,000 of the growth has been in traditional school districts — the rest has been all in the growing number of charter school students7.

Now, it is perfectly reasonable to oppose the charter school boom. State money follows the student, and each student who leaves a school district for a charter means the district gets less money (the money goes to fund the charter school). With uncertainty about how many students will show up, this can make planning and staffing more difficult.

There’s also evidence that charter schools have a hard time with diversity — ending up either largely white or largely black (with many exceptions).

But it’s also true that the charter boom has pushed school districts to think more innovatively about their offerings, particularly in magnet schools.

Movement School, a charter school that opened in Charlotte in 2017.

Creating a voucher program for private and religious schools

This is another program that features prominently in the “war on education” narrative. But the impact has been pretty miniscule.

Yes, Republicans passed a law that provides vouchers for families to attend private schools. But it is income restricted and a fairly low dollar amount. Rich families are not getting money to send their kids to $20,000-a-year Catholic schools.

The Opportunity Scholarship program has a $4,200 per year max and they’re available only to low-income families — a family of four would have to make less than $45,510.

This year, only about 7,700 have been given out. Interestingly, small Islamic schools have been among the primary beneficiaries8.

The recipients are 44% white and 32% black — a pretty fair representation according to the state population.

131 students at the Greensboro Islamic Academy received vouchers this year, second-most in the state (behind Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville). Photo by Greensboro Islamic Academy via Facebook

Shrinking class sizes for grades K-3

This is the big debate happening now.

Republicans set the agenda that they wanted young students to be in smaller classrooms. Opponents are now calling what’s happening “class size chaos.” Here’s how it all came about.

North Carolina funds school districts based on enrollment. The state pays a teacher’s salary for every 18 students in a big lump sum. School districts are able to use that money as they see fit — including for elective teachers, or other specialty teachers — provided that their average class size does not go over 21 and that the maximum class size is not over 24.

Republican education leaders have not been thrilled with how school districts have used this flexibility. So a law last year cracks down on how many students can go in K-3 classrooms.

Over two years, the law lowers the average class size requirements down to 18 students in kindergarten classrooms, 16 in first grade, 17 in second grade and 17 in third grade. And the maximum class size can be no more than three above that — or else the school superintendent doesn’t get paid.

Now, here’s where the controversy comes. With that reduced flexibility, school districts in some cases are having to add more K-3 classrooms to reduce class sizes and avoid maximums. Some are having to convert elective classrooms to traditional ones.

In some cases, PE classes are bringing in two classrooms at once, and art class has become “art in a cart,” with lessons being brought in to the regular classroom.

Opponents have also warned that classrooms in grades 4-5 could get more crowded (though I haven’t seen any evidence of this yet).

There is a tradeoff here. Which do you value more — smaller K-3 class sizes or more dedicated space for arts and music? Reasonable people can disagree.

This process has also shown that the system for funding elective classrooms is broken. Legislative leaders have promised to study how to fund these subjects separately. Here’s hoping that happens.

But even large districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are saying they are having no trouble meeting the requirements, so “chaos” is overblown.

If the Republicans are waging war on education, they’re not doing a very good job of it.

At worst, it’s been a stalemate. Change is hard. But honestly, I see a lot of merit in the changes.

There’s also plenty to disagree about. I think it’s damaging to our state to have the opposing side argue that there’s a war going on or that Republicans are evil instead of actually debating the merits.

But I guess funding models don’t make for good campaign mailers or fundraising pitches.


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Homepage image of Cary Elementary by Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr (Creative Commons)

6 COMMENTS

  1. Are all of the dollar amounts quoted above adjusted for inflation? Although the column mentions that inflation affects costs, it doesn’t sound like inflation has been taken into account. $30,000 in 2011 and $35,000 in 2018 are a lot closer together in constant dollars

    • It hasnt. When inflation is factored in, we are essentially funding schools at around the same level as the budgets that were greatly reduced during the recession. Almost every budget since then has increased spending at the rate of inflation + sometimes growth. As far as the buying power of what is spent, we are spending like it’s 2009. I believe that per pupil spending is still below what it was for the pre-recession budget of 2008.

  2. As the author of “North Carolina’s Step-by-Step War,” I wanted to point out a couple of things.

    First, that article’s title was contrived as a means of getting readers to click, much as your “explainer” series titles operate and much as most of the internet until about a year ago tended to do. I regret that title, but hyperbole won eyeballs. That one in particular reached into the six figures, which for an article on public education in North Carolina, still seems extraordinary.

    Second, and much more importantly, your fair summation has left out a few key details. While brimstone hasn’t rained down upon our heads, it’s worth pointing out that our legislature acted beyond its authority on multiple occasions–invoking more than one of its laws to be overturned in the courts and inspiring howls from public ed advocates statewide. It’s entirely possible that their “war” hasn’t been as effectively because teachers and judges have put up a hell of a fight along the way.

    Remember, though, that in the past seven years legislators have reshaped the teacher prep system in public universities, curtailing enrollment while killing the best teacher scholarship program in the country only to bring it back; forced local education authorities to vastly cut expenses to preserve teacher jobs (the recent $8.1 billion backlog of capital improvements reported is one indication); barely kept up with inflation and increased student enrollment in providing per pupil expenditures; whacked healthcare benefits for retired teachers; implemented a state-wide education grading system that measures achievement more than growth–which turns out to be a better measure of socio-economic status than anything; and cleared the way for privately held companies, which gladly contributed to their campaign budgets, to open for-profit charters.

    All of this–and much more–took aim at the public school student and her teacher. We are left with a state educational system that is still inadequately funded, staffed by a skeleton crew, and consistently told it isn’t doing well at all. Meanwhile, the increased demand for charter schools is only reinforced by the perceptions parents inevitably gain when they pick up their kid from a falling-apart campus. Rather than fixing schools, our legislature seems more than happy to bankrupt them. Let the markets decide, indeed.

    Your article forgets that in 2014, with the state projecting a $445 million shortfall in revenue, lawmakers demanded then Governor McCrory to “show [them] the money” as he pitched a $200 million teacher pay plan. It ignores comments from legislators like Sen. David Curtis, who ignorantly challenged a teacher in an email copied to the entire legislature to go find a private sector job that gave her “eight weeks of paid vacation” like her public school job did–and the 40 legislators who told Curtis his comments were “right on the money.” (Spoiler alert: teachers don’t get paid over the summer.) It forgets the original legislation killing teacher tenure, which was signed into law but overturned in the courts, forced teachers to choose between their pension and their tenure. Imagine that: a law that told honest, hard-working teachers they could make it harder for the state to fire them (but lose their retirement), or keep their retirement, and make it easier for the state to fire them.

    You’re correct in saying that Republicans haven’t burned down the school house. But they sure did sucker punch a lot of teachers along the way.

    And yes, lousy bloggers like me ginned up a bunch of angry NPR tote-bag activists in those nitty gritty times, in part because it was the right thing to do, and in part because inspiring people to care about public education policy is a tall order. Though I passed along more than a couple click-bait headlines, I never lied about what was going on. Still, I lament that we’re left with a system that rewards throwing molotov cocktails instead of condoning intelligent discourse.

  3. One hidden problem with mandating lower class sizes is that it can kill innovative schools or push them to have to be charter schools. So for instance, the consistently award winning language immersion schools in Charlotte, Collinswood, Oaklawn and Waddell will struggle to efficiently manage their schools. These schools in all but the rarest circumstances cannot add students after the 1st grade. Families move, some children need to transfer to a more traditional school and other circumstances lead to a natural attrition for all schools. Therefore, these schools have to pack the k-3 classrooms to ensure that later grades have enough students in them to avoid the natural attrition in those schools. Without this process the later grades do not have enough students to fill the larger classrooms.
    Also, the stated purpose of limiting the freedom of local school districts is in direct contrast to the stated purpose of allowing more charter schools to allow more freedom to educated innovatively. Also, a tenant of the GOP used to be local control is better then centralized control. So it brings forward the question “what is the purpose of the underlying legislation”

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