North Carolina Launches Dramatic Changes in Education

Last Updated: September 30, 2013

This article appeared in the September 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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Despite modest increases in revenues, a number of states have continued to cut funding for K–12 public education. (See “Education Spending Levels Lower Than Pre-Recession Levels in Most States.”) At the same time they have cut public education spending, several states have instituted a variety of new requirements for public schools, loosened accountability for charter schools, and created or expanded programs that direct tax dollars to private schools.

One of the states implementing sweeping changes to its preK–12 education system is North Carolina. In this article, RPM explores some of the laws the state legislature passed in its most recent legislative session.

North Carolina Good and Getting Better Through 2013

For the past several decades, North Carolina has held fast to a commitment to strengthen its public school system through funding, programs to support teachers, and expanded services and supports for students. Those commitments have yielded results. This year the state’s graduation rate climbed above 80%, its highest rate ever, an accomplishment accompanied by the lowest dropout rate in North Carolina history.

Beginning last year, however, the legislature, with Republican super-majorities in both legislative houses and a Republican governor, began making big changes to the public education system, dismantling many of the programs credited with the state’s education gains.

Page McCullough, Field Services Manger for Rural Trust and Director of Outreach for the non-profit Public Schools First NC (PSFNC) says, “Lawmakers have decreased funding for pre-K programs, ended our nationally recognized Teaching Fellows program in favor of giving $11 million to Teach for America, and stopped giving a modest salary award for teachers who get Master’s degrees.”

North Carolina’s abrupt shift could make it a laboratory for testing some of the most ideologically driven education theories of the early 21st century. We’ll look at how North Carolina has altered education policy in three primary areas: public school funding, privatization, and teachers.

Public School Funding

Like many states, North Carolina has cut funding for education since the beginning of the recession. The recently released report “Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before Recession” from the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), finds that North Carolina has cut funding for public education by 8.6% since 2008. According to a PSFNC analysis of the 2013–15 budget, funding is now $600 million less than would be required to maintain funding at 2008 levels and makes North Carolina 48th in per pupil expenditures. Statewide enrollment has increased by more than 33,000 students since the budget cuts began.

So, what do these cuts mean for North Carolina schools?

  • Schools will get only $43 per student for textbooks, technology, and classroom and instructional supplies.
  • 2,500 slots for low-income children have been eliminated from the state’s pre-K program.
  • About 5,200 teaching positions have been eliminated.
  • The state’s average teacher salary has fallen from 25th nationally to 46th, due to a lack of pay raises and lower starting salaries. Average starting salaries have fallen from $35,000 to $31,000 in the last five years.
  • Average salaries will continue to decline with the elimination of extra pay for teachers who earn a masters degree after March 2014. (See “Teachers” below for more information on changes to teacher policy.)
  • 3,800 teaching assistants have been cut.
  • Class sizes are larger and there is less staff support for remaining teachers and students.
  • The highly regarded North Carolina Teaching Fellows has been eliminated.

Despite cuts in teacher salaries (and elimination of tenure, see “Teachers” below), the legislature set aside $10 million for a new teacher evaluation and merit pay system. According to information provided by the North Carolina Association of Educators, the only guidelines for the merit pay program are that each district must identify 25% of teachers for $500 in merit pay. At just $500, the extra pay will not begin to make up for losses in starting salaries or masters pay. Moreover, it will only be available to a fraction of the state’s 95,000 teachers.

The legislature also instituted a new school rating system that will give all regular public schools a letter grade from A to F, based strictly on test scores. Eighty percent of the grade will be absolute scores, and 20% will be based on growth in student scores. Similar systems have tracked closely with student income levels, in part because absolute scores on most standardized tests closely correlate with out-of-school resources and opportunities available (or not) to students.

In addition, the legislature allocated $11 million for Teach for America (TFA). TFA, a private program closely aligned with the charter movement, provides recent college graduates from around the country with five weeks of teacher training and places them in schools for two years. According to PSFNC, less than 10% of TFA teachers stay in North Carolina as teachers after their two-year stint, and there are no long-term data to compare student outcomes of TFA teachers to those of regular teachers.

However, the legislature defeated a proposal to restore $3.5 million in funding for the nationally recognized North Carolina Teaching Fellows. That program had been in place for 25 years when it was de-funded in 2011. It provided renewable scholarships and high-quality preparation to high achieving North Carolina residents interested in becoming teachers. When fully operational, the program cost about $13.5 million a year and produced more than 400 new teachers each year. Nearly 80% of Fellows remain teaching in North Carolina for at least five years, and long-term data indicates their student outcomes are better than average.

Privatization: Vouchers

In the 2014–15 school year, additional cuts to public school funding of nearly $11 million will be made in order to fund a private school voucher program dubbed the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The program will provide $10 million for the 2014–15 school year to help cover costs for private school tuition. Specifically, the program will provide up to $4200 per student toward the cost of tuition. Families with incomes below $43,568 (family of four) are eligible.

Schools receiving tax-funded vouchers are free to create their own admissions requirements and are not required to provide students with transportation or lunches or to provide services to students with disabilities or those learning English.

Further, the program has very limited accountability provisions. Private schools receiving tax-funded vouchers are exempt from most state accountability programs. For example: 

  • Private schools are only subject to financial review if they receive more than $300,000 in scholarship grants, meaning at least 70 students are on vouchers.
  • Private schools are not subject to public reviews of their curriculum or materials no matter how many voucher students are enrolled.
  • Private schools are not required to administer state tests, report on student progress, or participate in the A–F school performance grading system. They are required to administer a nationally standardized test once each year for students in grades 3, 6, 9, and 11.
  • Private schools are not required to provide aggregated performance data for grant recipients unless more than 25 students receive vouchers.
  • Private schools are only required to provide an annual written progress report to a student’s parent or guardian.
  • There are no licensure or credentialing requirements for teachers or other staff.
  • Only the highest-ranking administrator at the private school is subject to a background check of any kind.

The NCAE has said it plans to challenge the constitutionality of the voucher program.

Charters Win Big

North Carolina’s original charter legislation, passed in 1996, authorized up to 100 charter schools and was intended to encourage creative teaching methods and foster the sharing of best practices with traditional public schools. In 2011, the state legislature removed the cap on the number of charter schools, made changes that weaken charter accountability and oversight, and limited the ability of local districts to address negative impacts of charters on regular public schools. For example: 

  • Local boards are now prohibited from providing a local impact statement as part of the authorization process.
  • Charters are not required to provide student transportation or free/reduced priced lunches to eligible students.
  • Charters are not required to provide special education services, programs for gifted students, or services to English Language Learners unless those services or programs are part of the school's mission.
  • Only 50% of teachers in charter schools must be certified.
  • Charters can add one grade level each year without approval of the State Board of Education or any other agency.

Many people in North Carolina question the fairness and intent of the voucher program and changes in the charter law, particularly those provisions that free these schools from requirements to serve all students and reduce their accountability. In an issue sheet on its website, Public Schools First North Carolina maintains that these provisions "Help fund separate and unequal education." The site further asserts: “Using public dollars to fund schools that cannot offer a sound and basic education. Using public dollars to fund schools that cannot offer a sound and basic education to all students violates the NC Constitution.”

PSFNC also points out that appropriate monitoring of private and charter schools and their use of taxpayer dollars will add to taxpayer costs without “adding any resources to the classroom of any child.”

Teacher Policy: Elimination of Due Process in Employment

Among the most dramatic of North Carolina’s policy changes are those that affect teachers.

In addition to reducing the number of teaching positions and salaries, the legislature also ended teacher tenure. While tenure does not guarantee employment nor prohibit a district from firing a teacher for cause, it does give teachers due process rights related to employment and termination. Due process makes it harder for school districts to fire teachers for political or personal reasons or because a district wants to make an occupied position available to someone else for reasons that have little or nothing to do with students. The new tenure provisions, which will likely be challenged in court, are as follows:

  • No currently non-tenured teachers will be eligible for tenure. This applies primarily to new teachers who have not yet been reviewed.
  • Tenure for those who have already earned it will be phased out over the next five years. Teachers will instead be placed on one, two, or four-year contracts.

“Through a wide ranging variety of policy initiatives, the current legislature has set about to starve our public schools, demoralize our teachers, increase parent frustration and point to private schools and cookie cutter corporate charter chains as the ‘solution,’ ” says McCullough. “It is very sad for North Carolinians who have fought for decades to be able to educate each child for life. The goal of educating each child is one that North Carolinians support and will be fighting to hang on to.” 

Read more:

Public School First NC website:

PSFNC’s summary of the Opportunity scholarship Act:

North Carolina Association of Educators, “Top 10 Things Every Educator Should Know About the Budget”

An article on the loss of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program:

North Carolina Policy Watch series on School Vouchers:

The effects of school vouchers on student achievement

Information on Teacher evaluations:


Read more from the September 2013 Rural Policy Matters.