Politics & Government

Early college high schools are among NC’s top options. Why is a funding cut possible?

North Carolina’s early college high schools have been among the state’s most successful schools, with high graduation rates and school test scores.

But some schools could be forced to close because of proposed state budget cuts.

State Senate budget writers have proposed phasing out $26 million in extra funding that the early colleges receive as part of their mission of providing high school students with access to college courses. School leaders across the state are warning that the loss of the supplemental state funding means some early colleges, especially those in rural communities, won’t have enough money to stay open.

“If they’re not going to have the supplemental funding, they’re going to have to scale back dramatically or not be able to continue,” said Elizabeth Yelverton, legal affairs and policy manager for the N.C. Association of School Administrators. “There’s a very good chance that a lot of schools will close without the funding.”

Yelverton’s group is among those who are lobbying state lawmakers not to cut early college funding. Budget writers from the Senate and the House, which didn’t include the cut, are working on a compromise budget.

Early colleges are small public high schools that offer students a chance to graduate with a diploma and tuition-free college credit. The schools are a partnership between school districts and local colleges, often community colleges.

Early colleges are part of a program called cooperative innovative high schools. There are 133 innovative schools across the state. They served 26,090 students in the 2017-18 school year.

‘Changing lives’

Early colleges were created with a goal of attracting students who’d be the first college attendee in their families.

“These schools are saving children and changing lives,” Karli Mikula, a teacher at Pender Early College High School in Burgaw, wrote on an online petition asking lawmakers not to cut the funding.

A state report in March noted that students in these cooperative innovative high schools outperform other schools on state exams. On Friday, BEST NC, a business coalition focused on education, posted a graphic on Twitter showing how early colleges consistently outperform other schools on state exams.

In 2017-18, 72% of the early colleges received a school performance grade of A, compared to 6.5% of traditional public schools, according to Education NC.

Also in the 2017-18 school year, 59 early colleges had 100 percent graduation rates.

Studies of the state’s early college program by the SERVE Center at UNC-Greensboro found increases in high school graduation rates and in students getting a two-year associate’s degree. It also found that students were getting a four-year college degree faster.

Each graduating class of North Carolina early college students could bring an estimated $92 million in increased lifetime benefits to society, such as through increased tax payments and reduced incarceration costs, according to Julie Edmunds, program director for secondary school reform at SERVE.

“The model works,” Edmunds said. “Is it going to work for everybody? I don’t know. But they are working for the students who are interested in attending them.”

To help these schools, the state provides supplemental funding that’s used for things such as purchasing college textbooks and supplies and paying for a counselor to help the students navigate through the college courses. The funding is important because the early colleges are small, with nearly all having less than 400 students.

The state used to provide each early college with $300,000 a year. But in 2017, state lawmakers reduced the funding to between $180,000 and $275,000 a year, depending on the wealth of the county where the school is located.

A 2018 state report found that the majority of early colleges weren’t able to make up for the reduction in state funding. This resulted in cuts in staffing, training and textbooks.

‘A proven return’

The new Senate budget would go even further by phasing to the remaining supplemental funding over the next three years. The schools would still get the regular state funding they’d receive, but Yelverton of the N.C. Association of School Administrators say many early college principals say that money wouldn’t be enough.

“These programs are a proven return on investment,” Yelverton said. “They’re doing what they were created to do so it doesn’t make sense for the legislature to be targeting this specific program when it has proven to be effective.”

Wake County school board member Bill Fletcher also questioned why funding would be cut given the success of the program.

“It’s just hard not to be cynical when some of these decisions are on the table,” Fletcher said at a review of the Senate budget earlier this month.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee, said he was not in favor of the cut to early college funding. He said he’s working to save the funding during the budget negotiations.

“Those programs have been very successful,” Tillman said. “In the long run before everything is said and done, those programs will continue.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.