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State education budget gets glum reception from CMS leaders, public-school advocates

The state education budget, expected to get final approval on Wednesday, got a glum reception from leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other public-school advocates.

The lack of raises for teachers and other state employees, a $120 million cut in state spending for teacher assistants, and the shifting of $10 million to vouchers for private schools were described by many as a backward move for a state once known for valuing public education.

“I don’t know how we’re going to attract and retain the best and brightest,” said CMS board Chairman Mary McCray, a retired teacher. “I don’t see anything in that budget that’s saying to employees, ‘I value the time and the service that you put in.’ ”

One of the biggest questions – how many CMS assistants will lose jobs because of the cuts – remained unanswered at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Jonathan Sink, a CMS attorney who serves as the legislative liaison, said officials are still looking for ways to offset the state cuts and avoid laying off assistants.

Most assistants in CMS make less than $25,000 a year. They help with classroom duties and work with students in small groups or one-on-one, focusing on early elementary grades and students with disabilities.

“They are really some of the taxpayers’ best bang for the buck,” Sink said before the meeting.

Some like it

The budget released Sunday by the Republican-dominated House and Senate won kudos from some education advocates.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said “opportunity scholarships,” often known as vouchers, will provide hope for low-income and working-class families who have children in failing public schools. Starting in 2014-15, students will be eligible for income-based scholarships of $4,200 a year to cover tuition.

Allison said North Carolina will be the 10th state to offer such aid for private-school attendance: “That’s a powerful message” that parents have options, he said. As for the effect on public schools, “I don’t believe the walls are going to come tumbling down.”

Julie Kowal, executive director of the newly formed Carolina Campaign for Achievement Now, said her group, which is supported by national reform foundations, is glad to see changes in the state tenure and evaluation system, coupled with a theoretical commitment to performance pay. But she noted that those advances are offset by “dangerously low teacher salaries” and “really negative messaging” about the value of teachers.

Trade-offs

The budget gives state employees five extra days of paid leave in lieu of raises. But McCray and Sink say it’s difficult for classroom teachers, who are paid only for the 10-month school year, to take additional days off.

Sink said the legislature has officially supported teacher performance pay, also known as “pay for excellence,” but has provided no money for it. Meanwhile, additional pay for advanced degrees is being phased out in coming years, along with the job security afforded by “career status,” or tenure.

All of those changes add up to a national message, some advocates say: North Carolina is no longer a good place to teach.

“We just keep falling to the bottom, it seems to me,” said Martha Alexander, a former Democratic state legislator from Mecklenburg County who is a board member of the recently formed Public Schools First North Carolina.

“It’s pretty discouraging for public education,” said Bill Anderson, a former CMS administrator who heads the local information and advocacy group MeckEd. “Have we abandoned public education?”

Bright spots

Anderson cites one bright spot in the budget: Despite early talk of cutting money for public pre-kindergarten, lawmakers preserved the existing program.

Sink also praised a $2 million matching grant for school districts to create programs that get students ready for careers. Local districts have to raise half the money from business partners to qualify for the state money. Sink said CMS supports the effort to work with employers and higher education.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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