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.
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.
- “North Carolina’s step-by-step war on public education,” reads a Washington Post headline.
- “The assault on public education in North Carolina just keeps on coming,” shouts another WaPo piece.
- “Despite GOP claims, education advocates say Senate budget fails to repair damage to public schools,” says the left-leaning N.C. Policy Watch.
Of course, Republicans have claimed substantial victories.
- “N.C. Education Spending Rising Rapidly,” says a post on Speaker Tim Moore’s website.
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:
- Raising the pay for beginning teachers.
- Ending teacher tenure, also known as “career status.”
- Lifting the cap on charter schools.
- Creating a voucher program for private and religious schools.
- 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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.