Judge Condemns Disadvantaged Students to Failing Schools

schoolchoicesignGuest post by Dr. Terry Stoops

For many years, state education and political leaders promised increasing our “investment” in public schools was the key to raising student achievement for disadvantaged students. And invest we did, increasing inflation-adjusted per pupil spending by nearly 25 percent in the last 20 years alone.

Yet, two decades later, disadvantaged children in North Carolina public schools continue to struggle. Last year, only 28 percent of low-income students in grades 3-8 were proficient in math. Around 29 percent were proficient in reading. That means that about seven out of 10 students in public elementary and middle schools are not proficient in math and reading as measured by state standardized tests.

Acknowledging that the “throw money at the problem” approach was a failure, Republican leaders in the N.C. General Assembly decided to change course. In 2013, legislators championed a research-based approach to raising student performance — a private school voucher program for families who, unlike the wealthy, do not have the means to provide educational options for their children.

The program was new, but the idea wasn’t. Even when Democrats were in charge of state government, North Carolina had long relied on private and religious institutions to provide schooling and educational services for toddlers, college students, and those in between. State agencies continue to direct taxpayer money to private (often sectarian) preschools, universities, and facilities for special-needs children. Faith-based organizations, churches, and private entities annually receive millions in grant money to provide educational services for at-risk elementary and secondary school students, among others.


Making History on Coal Ash

sunshine-on-the-riverOn the last day of the 2014 “short session,” the General Assembly reached overwhelming, bipartisan agreement on coal ash mitigation that will give North Carolina the strictest regulations on coal ash in the nation — and make it the first state to force the closure of all coal ash ponds. The legislation passed the Senate 38 to 2 and passed the House 84 to 13.

“Since day one, the House and Senate have agreed that fixing coal ash is a top priority, and I am proud of my colleagues for following through to deliver the most comprehensive, aggressive and science-driven mitigation plan in the entire country,” said Senate Leader Phil Berger. “As a resident of the community most severely impacted by the recent Dan River coal ash spill, I am personally grateful to Senator Tom Apodaca, who has spent hundreds of hours working on this bill, along with all House and Senate conferees for persevering to get this done.”

“This collaborative coal ash legislation between the House, Senate and Administration to clean up North Carolina’s decades-old coal ash problem will be the first in the nation to address this issue,” said Speaker Tillis. “This comprehensive plan we have developed for North Carolina will be the foundation of coal ash management across the nation and help safeguard our water for future generations. I want to thank Representative Chuck McGrady, who is a past president of the Sierra Club, and our other House and Senate conferees for their hard work on this plan.”

Senate Bill 729 sets a firm 15-year timetable for dewatering and closing all unlined coal ash ponds in North Carolina and eliminates the practice of wet ash disposal. The plan requires the Dan River, Asheville, Riverbend and Sutton coal ash ponds to be excavated and closed as quickly as practicable – and no later than 2019.

The remaining ponds will be classified into three categories of risk. Sites determined to be high-risk must be closed within five years (by no later than 2019), intermediate-risk sites by no later than 2024 and low-risk sites by no later than 2029. High and intermediate-risk ponds may not be capped in place – instead, coal ash from those facilities must be stored in lined landfills or recycled toward a beneficial use such as concrete production or roadway construction. And low-risk ponds can only be capped in place if both DENR and an independent coal ash commission agree that this closure method is appropriate and long-term monitoring requirements are met.

Following several days of productive dialogue, lawmakers agreed to further strengthen the environmental protections related to low-risk sites. The conference report directs that proposed closure plans to cap a pond in place must be designed to prevent future groundwater contamination.

In addition, the bill mandates that all future coal ash disposal must be managed in new or existing lined landfills with extensive groundwater monitoring. It also requires pond owners to divert stormwater away from ash ponds and phase out the disposal of wet ash – the sludge that spilled into the Dan River – within five years. And it immediately makes it illegal to construct or expand wet coal ash ponds statewide.

The bill also:

  • Forms a new, independent and specialized Coal Ash Management Commission to review and approve risk classifications and closure plans proposed by owners of coal ash ponds and DENR. The commission will make policy recommendations to the General Assembly to ensure efficient and safe coal ash management statewide. It will consist of nine people with experience in areas such as public health, waste management and conservation.
  • Creates up to 30 new positions for the regulation, mitigation and oversight of coal ash management operations – 25 at DENR and 5 staff for the commission. These regulatory positions, along with the commission’s operating expenses, will be funded by utilities with coal ash ponds and cannot be passed on to consumers.
  • Keeps and expands on many of the governor’s recommendations, including:
    • Strengthening regulations on the use of coal ash as structural fill.
    • Requiring utilities to assess and correct existing and future contamination of ground, surface and drinking water, with oversight through DENR.
    • Strengthening dam inspection laws, by requiring more frequent inspections and creation of Emergency Action Plans.
  • Bans utility companies from recovering costs for the damage caused by coal ash spills, including associated civil or criminal fines.
  • Requires utilities to look at markets for innovative commercial uses of coal ash and study technology that could be used to more effectively manage coal ash. And it directs the commission, DOT and other agencies to study ways to recycle coal ash through beneficial use projects.

Pay Reform Meets Student Needs

A-plusGuest post by John Hood

Critics of the Republican-led General Assembly allege that the teacher-pay raise included in this year’s state budget could have been implemented in a much simpler fashion: by giving across-the-board hikes to all public school teachers across North Carolina, rather than giving large raises to early-career teachers and relatively small raises to some experienced ones.

The critics are correct. Across-the-board raises would have been simpler. They would have been easier to explain both to teachers and to the general public. But that doesn’t mean they would have been the best policy. You see, North Carolina’s system for compensating teachers didn’t just need an influx of money. It needed wholesale restructuring.

Until last year, North Carolina used an archaic and counterproductive system for compensating teachers. The pay scale had 37 steps. Teachers began at a relatively low salary ($30,800 in 2013-14) and then, after receiving tenure, received small but steady annual bumps. For most teachers, it took 15 years for their salaries to reach $40,000. There were a couple of ways to speed up the process, however. One was to obtain a graduate degree, typically in education. The other was to achieve national board certification.

The pay scale was, in other words, weighted heavily towards years of experience and credentials. Unfortunately,teacher experience and credentials do not strongly correlate with teacher effectiveness. Among 132 studies on the subject, published in peer-reviewed journals over the past 25 years, 59 percent found no consistent relationship between teacher experience and student performance (after adjusting for student characteristics and other variables). The research on graduate degrees was clearer still. More than 80 percent of 114 academic studies found that teachers with advanced degrees were no better at teaching students than those without them. Board certification fared better. Slightly more than half of the few studies on the subject found positive effects.

Given these insights, derived from the work of scholars across the ideological spectrum, North Carolina lawmakers decided to change the pay scale. Junking the 37 post-tenure steps, they created a flatter schedule consisting of six broad bands. The starting salary jumps by more than 7 percent, to $33,000, and will rise another 7 percent in 2015-16. The next band, for those with five to nine years of experience, offers a base pay of $36,500. Teachers in this category will receive double-digit hikes this year. The third band starts at year 10 and offers a base salary of $40,000. (Remember that it previously took 15 years to get to that point.)

While retaining the bonus for board certification, lawmakers allowed the graduate-degree bonus to lapse, except for teachers who were already in the process of earning one. What will replace it? Legislative leaders and the McCrory administration envision a system in which teachers will receive pay bumps for taking on tough jobs — such as working in high-poverty schools or teaching difficult courses — and for performance in the classroom as identified by principal evaluations, value-added test scores, or both.

This strategy for reforming teacher compensation is based on solid empirical evidence and focused squarely on the goal of maximizing student success. In their 2012 study for the journal Educational Policy, Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Katharine Strunk of UCLA found that school systems with “front-loaded” pay scales like North Carolina just adopted tend to achieve superior student outcomes. “Relative to a back-loaded salary structure,” they write, “a front-loaded schedule should allow for a more efficient allocation of district budgets by saving funds that might otherwise yield little return when allocated to veteran teachers’ salaries and putting those dollars to more productive, student achievement-enhancing uses.”

But the strategy does have adversaries. Teacher unions detest pay differentials based on subject matter or individual performance. Schools of education thrived on the artificial demand for graduate degrees created by the previous teacher bonuses.

Until these reform opponents can come up with more persuasive arguments than “we’ve always done it this way” or “shut up and do what we want,” my sense is that most members of the General Assembly are committed to the teacher-pay reforms begun in 2014 and welcome the chance to explain them to voters this fall.

Pay Reform Meets Student Needs” was written by John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation. It was originally posted on August 11, 2014 and appears here with permission.

A Win for Common Sense Reform

vote-button2The following article, written by , first appeared in National Review Online on August 11, 2014.

Attorney General Eric Holder suffered a huge loss on Friday in his war on election integrity. A federal judge refused to issue a preliminary injunction against North Carolina’s omnibus election reform law that includes voter ID, as well as measures such as the elimination of same-day registration.

In three cases filed by the Justice Department, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and a host of other liberal advocacy organizations that had been combined into one case, federal district court Judge Thomas Schroeder ruled that the “plaintiffs have not made a clear showing that they are likely to succeed on the merits.”

DOJ and its political allies claimed that the state’s 2013 law violates the 14th, 15th, and 26th Amendments, as well as Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it is supposedly racially discriminatory. DOJ also asked for federal observers to be assigned to future elections in North Carolina.

The North Carolina law implemented a voter-ID requirement; reduced early voting from 17 to ten days; eliminated same-day registration; does not allow the counting of provisional ballots cast outside a voter’s regular precinct; banned the preregistration of 16- and 17-year olds; and expanded poll observers and the ability to challenge ineligible voters.

Judge Schroeder wrote a very long, 125-page opinion that quite simply shreds the arguments made by DOJ and the other plaintiffs. They made the same mistake in this case that they made in the Shelby County decision (decided last year by the U.S. Supreme Court) when they unsuccessfully cited old cases in arguing that the North Carolina legislature was acting with the intent to discriminate when it passed the election law.

As Judge Schroeder pointed out, the plaintiffs’ “historical evidence in these cases focuses largely on racial discrimination that occurred between a quarter of a century to over a century ago. However, as the Supreme Court recently stated, ‘history did not end in 1965’” when the Voting Rights Act was passed.

Significantly, Judge Schroeder cited the testimony of DOJ’s own experts against it. This included one expert who admitted that black turnout in North Carolina is on par with that of whites, and another DOJ expert who acknowledged that the black registration rate is higher than that of whites. That makes it a bit difficult to argue that state officials have been discriminating against minority voters.

In fact, Judicial Watch filed an expert report in the case through an amicus brief that showed that in the May 2014 primary election, black turnout was up an astounding 29.5 percent compared with the last midterm primary election in May 2014. White turnout was up only 13.7 percent. As Judicial Watch said, these results were “devastating to the plaintiffs’ cases because they contradict all of their experts’ basis for asserting harm.”

Most important, Judge Schroeder found that the data in fact showed that “black voters will not have unequal access to the polls” due to the new provisions of the election law being challenged. And the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that this law was “implemented with the intent to deny or abridge the right to vote of African-American North Carolinians or otherwise violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution.”

Although the voter-ID requirement is not effective until 2016, the plaintiffs challenged the “soft rollout” requirement of the law. This mandates that election officials notify voters in elections held in 2014 and 2015 that they will need a photo ID in 2016. But the judge refused to issue an injunction against the “soft rollout,” too.

Trial in this case is scheduled for July 2015, so the litigation is not over. But this is a significant blow to DOJ and other opponents of commonsense election reforms.

That is particularly true when one remembers that this is DOJ’s second big loss in the Carolinas. South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson beat DOJ in 2012 when a federal court threw out a claim that South Carolina’s voter-ID law was discriminatory. That law is in place today — and there is a high probability that North Carolina’s voter-ID requirement will also be in place in 2016 for the next presidential election.

What Happened to the Coal Ash Bill?

LB-square-250The following is a guest post by Representative Chuck McGrady (R-117) of Henderson County. Representative McGrady is a leader on environmental issues in the General Assembly and he has served on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club, including as its national president. Read more about Representative McGrady here.

A few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was that there might be a stalemate on the budget, but things seemed to be going fine with coal ash legislation. Both chambers of the General Assembly had passed coal ash bills, and the two Henderson County legislators who were sponsoring their chambers’ coal ash bills, Sen. Tom Apodaca and Rep. Chuck McGrady, seemed to signal that they would be able to reach a compromise on any issues as between the Senate and House-passed bills.

Of course, that isn’t what happened. The General Assembly went home having passed a budget, but wasn’t able to reach agreement on coal ash.

The dispute that erupted was about only one or two issues in the competing coal ash bills, but the General Assembly went home without resolving those issues. Part of the problem was just fatigue, and part of the problem was differing opinions. Senate leaders blasted unnamed House members of the conference committee as having gone “rogue,” but it was clear that the blast was directed at me and two of my colleagues who refused to agree to a conference report. My response was to say that the Senate had no business telling the House what its position ought to be and pointing out that I had the support of House leadership and my House Republican caucus.

The dispute over coal ash spilled over into other issues, and the two chambers went home without passing several bills, including some regulatory reform bills, an appointments bill, and even an adjournment resolution. Until an adjournment resolution is approved, the General Assembly technically remains in session, and both the House and the Senate will be holding skeleton sessions with few members attending and no votes being taken. The adjournment resolution is particularly important to some colleagues expected to have close elections in November, since they can’t raise money from political action committees affiliated with groups lobbying at the General Assembly until an adjournment resolution passes.

While there were lots of differences between the coal ash bills passed by the House and Senate, there were five, significant issues:


Tillis Statement on Budget Director Art Pope Resignation

Thom Tillis
Speaker of the House
Contact: Anna Roberts, Communications Director: 919-733-5917

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tillis Statement on
Budget Director Art Pope Resignation

Raleigh – The following statement is from House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) regarding State Budget Director Art Pope’s resignation from the Office of State Budget and Management:

“I want to personally thank Art for his public service and years of dedication to the state of North Carolina. I appreciate his leadership working closely with the General Assembly to improve the state’s economy, create balanced budgets and promote jobs in our state. North Carolina’s economy is better today than when he started.”

State Employees Support Budget

SEANCThe State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) released a statement last week in support of this year’s budget, which won final approval by the General Assembly on Saturday. SEANC represents our hardworking state employees and the valuable retirees who have dedicated their careers to state service.

From SEANC’s August 1 press release:

Finally! Budget agreement includes raises, vacation days & COLA

“…state employees would see a $1,000 base salary increase and five bankable bonus days of leave. State retirees would see a 1-percent cost-of-living increase. The pay raise will be retroactive to June 30 and the vacation days will go into effect Sept. 1.

“This $1,000 raise represents a 2.7-percent increase for a state working making the median salary of $37,000. Add to that the five bankable vacation days, which can be carried over from year to year, and many state employees will see a total compensation increase of 4.7 percent – the largest such increase since 2007-2008. The impact is even more pronounced for an early career correctional officer or Department of Transportation worker making $25,000. For them, the pay increase is a 4-percent raise, with a total compensation increase of 6 percent…

“…Overall, the budget is a positive for many state employees and retirees…”

SEANC is the South’s leading state employees’ association with over 55,000 active members. Read their entire press release here.

NC House Passes Budget Giving Teachers Average Seven Percent Pay Increase

Thom Tillis
Speaker of the House
Contact: Anna Roberts, Communications Director: 919-733-5917

Friday, August 1, 2014

NC House Passes Budget Giving Teachers
Average Seven Percent Pay Increase

Raleigh – The North Carolina House Friday tentatively passed a $21.25 billion state budget giving the state’s teachers an average seven percent raise. The $282 million investment moves North Carolina up 14 spots to an estimated 32nd in national rankings.

Most state employees will have a $1,000 salary increase as well as an additional five bonus vacation days. Highway Patrol Troopers who are step-eligible will receive a salary increase between five and six percent.

The budget also includes $186 million in a Medicaid Contingency Reserve for Medicaid and does not cut Medicaid eligibility.

“Today, the General Assembly was able to fulfill an important promise made to North Carolina’s teachers by giving them a significant seven percent average pay increase,” said House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg). “We are finally in a secure fiscal position to unfreeze and reform the salary schedule that started in previous administrations ensuring every teacher has more money in his or her pocket. This budget will also give much-deserved raises to state employees and State Troopers while preserving classroom funding across the state.”

Show Me The Money

teacherThis year’s budget, which was approved last night in the Senate and is being debated right now in the House, provides substantial raises for every one of North Carolina’s more than 100,000 public school teachers.

The state sets the base pay for our teachers, and this has an included extra amount paid out each year (after 10 years of teaching) called “longevity pay.” The new raises included in the budget is on top of that extra amount, and under the proposed budget plan, the process is reformed and simplified by folding the extra longevity pay back into the new base pay. By rolling longevity pay into base pay, it gives the public a more honest accounting of what our teachers receive from the state.

The chart below shows the raises from the state that each teacher will receive next year (in green) over what they currently receive (in blue), based on how many years they have taught school. The new average base salary (including longevity pay and the new pay raises) is $49,117 — now the fourth highest in the southeast. (When you divide $49,117 by the total number of weeks spent working (44), you get an average new weekly wage of $1,116. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average weekly wage across North Carolina was just $673 in 2012. In most counties, it is significantly lower.)

As you can see in the chart, the emphasis was on fulfilling the promise of increasing starting teacher pay. For example, a first-year teacher making $30,800 this year will receive a $2,200 raise next year, an increase of 7.14%. A teacher who has taught for five years will receive a $5,700 raise next year, an increase of 18.51%. Teachers at the top of the existing pay scale (30+ years of teaching) each get a $1,000 bonus. Under the new budget, teachers eligible for Master’s pay should add 10% more to their new base pay and those certified by the NBPTS should add 12% more to their new base pay.

The amounts in the graph do not include additional local supplement pay amounts, which vary from school district to school district. Local governments in Chapel Hill/Carborro, Wake County, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, for example, pay their teachers more than $6,000 above what you see here coming from state funds. 80% of local governments in North Carolina give teachers additional pay of at least $1,000 on top of these amounts; the average throughout the state is an additional $2,179 per year per teacher from local governments. County commissions and city councils are always free to increase this pay to teachers from year to year.

The figures below also do not include the additional amount that state taxpayers cover each year for a teacher’s employee health insurance benefits (an average of $4,931 per year), state pension benefits (an average of $5,383 per year), and an average of $3,139 in Social Security contributions (amounts are from 2012, the most recent available).

Click here to open a printable PDF of this chart.

Proposed Pay Raises for Teachers Next Year

Budget Was Worth The Wait

Guest post by John Hood

old-capitolIt’s the journey, not the destination, that matters most — or so we have been assured by deep thinkers ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Steven Tyler. When it comes to North Carolina’s revised 2014-15 state budget, however, the journey proved to be less an idyllic journey through the countryside than a drive through rush-hour traffic with a station wagon full of cranky kids.

It took longer than expected for the House and Senate to resolve their differences (although not particularly long by historical standards). The dialogue among conferees got heated on more than one occasion. Other legislators fidgeted in the backseat and repeatedly asked “Are we there yet?”

Still, I must say that the destination was worth it. The 2014-15 revised budget continues to implement the crucial tax reforms and reductions approved in 2013. At $21.25 billion, the General Fund will grow by just over 3 percent, less than inflation and population growth. The budget contains both structural reforms and sizable enhancements to teacher compensation, while giving other public school staff and state employees smaller but welcome raises. It also makes significant additions to the state’s savings accounts (a wise precaution given that the current national economic “recovery” is, again by historical standards, getting long in the tooth).

The provision attracting the lion’s share of attention is an average teacher pay raise of 7 percent, which will cost about $282 million. It works out to roughly $3,500 per teacher, on average. Under different circumstances, I and other fiscal conservatives might have questioned the wisdom of such a large hike in a single year. In the past, politicians have oversold the premise of North Carolina’s underpaid teachers — using national rankings without any attempt to adjust for variances in cost of living, years of experience, and the value of non-wage benefits. They’ve also tended to pour more money into a broken compensation system that put too much emphasis on longevity-based salary schedules at the expense of offering competitive starting salaries and paying teachers more for high performance or challenging jobs.

But in 2014, the circumstances are different. During the lean budget years of the Great Recession and its aftermath, teachers received only a single across-the-board pay raise (in 2012). Even after adjusting for relevant factors, North Carolina’s compensation package has clearly become less competitive. It needed attention this year.