Panel discusses education changes as concerns linger

Local education advocates are still working to familiarize themselves with changes to the state’s education system after Gov. Pat McCrory signed the new state budget and legislation regarding Common Core standards into law.

Those changes were the topic of a discussion held Tuesday, Aug. 12, with education advocacy group MeckEd and state legislators that included N.C. Reps. Charles Jeter, Tricia Cotham and Craig Horn and N.C. Sens. Jeff Tarte and Jeff Jackson.

Teacher pay was the main source of contention in this year’s budget discussions, with the General Assembly eventually agreeing to an average raise of 7.2 percent with longevity pay built into a streamlined, tiered salary schedule. Raises will be largest for teachers who are early in their careers, with the total cost of raises coming in at $282 million, with $50 million of one-time funding.

Teacher assistants took a sigh of relief after the budget revealed no deep cuts to their positions, but master’s pay will be restored only for those teachers who earned it before 2014-15 and for those who completed at least one class before Aug. 1, 2013. 

MeckEd Executive Director Bill Anderson questioned the panel at Tuesday’s meeting about what they and other legislators will do to ensure “sustainable funding for (K-12 public education) next year.” Many are concerned that teacher raises will result in cuts to other needed areas in the education budget if additional funding isn’t located.

Horn, a Union County representative, considers budgeting a dynamic process and said the only way to ensure funding is to push the General Assembly to stay accountable to constituents and to make communication open.

“I want my constituents to say, ‘What am I getting for what I’m paying?’ We ensure (money flows) by being transparent with you,” Horn said, adding the General Assembly needs the community to participate in the process.

Cotham, a south Charlotte representative who also is a former educator, worries about the sustainability of the budget and how the state will keep up with the cost of teacher raises. Cotham said her Democratic Party colleagues didn’t receive the final revision of the budget from the majority Republican Party members until 30 minutes before the vote, which didn’t allow enough time to dig deep into the specifics of the plan.

“The budget process is a dangerous time for citizens and schools,” Cotham said at the MeckEd meeting, adding she believes there are flaws to correct and continued conversations to be had.

Tarte, who represents the Matthews/Mint Hill area in addition to north Mecklenburg County, believes the budget process shows growth in the state’s education system and the way it’s funded, although the state will no longer automatically fund growth in schools.

“What you’re watching is the evolution of education and how we fund it,” Tarte said. State representatives need to spend time in the classroom and gain the perspective of teachers to best fulfill the needs of the educational system, he added. 

Another hot-button topic at the MeckEd event concerned Common Core legislation. The initiative establishes consistent statewide guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in mathematics and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

The new legislation creates the Academic Standards and Review Commission, which will make standard and curriculum recommendations to the State Board of Education for consideration. The commission will encompass four appointed members from each the House and Senate, two appointed members from the State Board of Education and a governor-appointed member. 

The commission may make recommendations, but retaining most or all of the current standards is permitted. A recent survey found that 82 percent of teachers want to retain the existing standards, MeckEd officials said.

Some feel the commission weakens the State Board of Education’s authority in education decisions, while Cotham worries the legislation makes education political by placing politicians on a board to shape the Common Core standards. She hopes the appointees are knowledgeable about education and can support the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which will carry out the curriculum and standards.

“In the Common Core bill, we aspire for the North Carolina standard to be the highest in the nation,” Horn said, but he feels this cannot be accomplished without participation from teachers and parents. 

But teachers feel unsure about how to carry out current policies because they receive different answers from the legislature and the DPI, Cotham said, citing when a teacher called her with questions and she had difficulty finding answers from the legislature. 

Tarte said the commission would include experts who could potentially alleviate confusion in the classrooms. The curriculum and standards may create additional work for teachers, but the 300 teachers across the nation Tarte talked to say they don’t mind. 

Horn hopes the new standards can set the tone for education nationally. 

“I want a North Carolina high school diploma to mean something,” Horn said. 

Educators will have to wait for the commission’s formation and recommendations to discern the fate of Common Core.

MeckEd Advocacy Committee Chair Wes Jones urged individuals on Tuesday to “take action” and contact local legislators to voice concerns about education decisions. MeckEd provides “tool kits” on its website, www.mecked.org, to assist individuals in contacting legislators.

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Courtney Schultz

About Courtney Schultz

Courtney Schultz is a recent college graduate from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. She has both a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Political Science. At Campbell, she was the editor-in-chief of the university’s student newspaper for nearly three years and worked for the Siskey YMCA in their membership services and marketing department. She mostly covers education news for the Matthews, Mint-Hill, and greater Charlotte areas.

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