Teacher raises, school lunches, early graduation, AI, career development. Here's what's in the NC budget for education

By Emily Walkenhorst

September 22, 2023

The $30 billion state budget includes new policies, in addition to funding increases, for education.

When it comes to education, the $30 billion North Carolina budget includes more than just school employee raises.

The budget proposal includes more than $100 million more each year for private school vouchers, and it extends the deadline to comply with provisions of the new Parents’ Bill of Rights to January, while schools work out the questions they have.

It provides an average raise of 7% over two years for teachers, though the most experienced teachers would receive raises of just 3.6%.

The budget, largely crafted by leaders of the Republican-controlled legislative chambers, has faced opposition from Democrats who say it doesn’t provide enough in employee pay raises and provides too much for school vouchers. Republicans argue many parents want more access to private schools. 

Parents for Educational Freedom in NC, a group that supports private school options for families, released a statement Wednesday favoring the budget and its expansion of “school choice.”

“This is a sound budget for education in North Carolina, and another step in the right direction of expanding education funding that prioritizes students over systems,” the group’s president, Mike Long, said in the statement.

Every Child NC, a coalition of nonprofit organizations that support investments in public education, says the budget doesn’t do enough to comply with court orders that have found the state is not complying with its constitutional responsibility to provide a “sound basic education.”

“This budget represents a sad continuation of an unjust system that disproportionately denies opportunity to students of color, students from families with low incomes, English learners, students with disabilities, and rural students,” the group wrote in a statement. “The budget’s tax cuts for wealthy North Carolinians and expansion of the unaccountable voucher program will further dismantle our public education system in future years.”

The budget includes several other policy changes, in addition to funding items. Here are some of the major moves:

  • Covid vaccines: Schools and colleges — including private schools that receive any amount of state funding — wouldn’t be able to require students to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
  • School meals: The budget would cover the cost of a reduced-price school meal for families who don’t quite qualify for a free meal. That would make likely tens of thousands of students eligible for free meals instead of just reduced-price ones. Schools would also be incentivized to enroll their schools into the federal Community Eligibility Provision program, which allows schools with enough lower-income families to have free school meals for all children, through a $500,000 boost to the state. Schools participating in the meal program would additionally be barred from punishing students for having meal debt by withholding records or denying them the ability to graduate.
  • Parental leave for school employees: The budget addresses a concern many school employees had, that rules required them to work at the same school for an entire year before they’d be eligible for paid parental leave. The budget would make it so they only need a cumulative 12 months of employment in public education, whether K-12 or higher education, to be eligible for paid parental leave.
  • Special education: Funding for students with disabilities would be officially capped at 13% of a school system’s or charter school’s enrollment. Currently, special education funding is limited to that amount in budgets, but the cap isn’t codified in state law. This budget would codify it, making that the law until a bill changes it. Statewide, 14% of students — 211,524 students — are identified under special education. Limiting funding at 13% means special education funding won’t be dedicated for at least 15,000 students with disabilities. Out of 115 school systems, 84 have enrolled more than 13% of their students in special education.
  • Gifted education: The budget would also officially limit funding for academically and intellectually gifted students at 4% of a school system’s or charter school’s enrollment. That is currently the practice, but the budget would codify that limit into law. Many schools say they have more students than that in gifted education who need to be served.
  • Career development: The budget would require career development plans for middle and high schoolers and a career pathways elective for middle schoolers to take. The career development plan requirement would begin as a pilot in 20 school districts this year before expanding in 2024-25, so officials can see what is required to do the planning. No funding or staffing is dedicated alongside this change.
  • School psychologists and health professionals: The dedicated funding for school psychologists would be turned into funding for “school health personnel,” which can include psychologists, counselors, nurses or social workers. Schools have had a hard time hiring psychologists in-house, in part because of pay and because of a lack of qualified people in the state. Schools are short on these workers. The budget also would require a report by January on the struggle to hire for these positions and a set of recommendations for the state.
  • School counselor duties: School counselors would be prohibited from helping to administer standardized testing in schools. Currently, counselors often do so during their “indirect” student services time, which can be up to 20% of their work week.
  • Incentivizing new teachers: The budget would create a teacher apprentice program that would allow high school graduates to work in schools as apprentices while earning their education degrees. It would also fund their school tuition. Similarly, the budget would expand the state’s Teaching Fellows program, which provides future loan forgiveness and training for people training to be teachers, by offering it to students at two more universities. It would also make students training to become kindergarten through sixth grade teachers eligible. Currently, only students training to be teachers in special education or science, technology, engineering or math disciplines are eligible.
  • Artificial intelligence in school security: New Hanover County Schools would receive $3.2 million and Davidson County Schools would receive $2 million for a pilot program allowing them to use artificial intelligence-backed technologies to improve school security. The technology would be used for automatic door locking or for automated communications.
  • Teacher training: Teachers at schools with at least 10% of students identified as “at-risk” of academic failure or dropout would be able to get National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certification for free. The certification costs $1,900 for the first five years and smaller amounts after that. The certification is a rigorous process in which teachers prove their skills and impact on students. The state pays 12% more in annual base pay to teachers with the certification.
  • Changes to school funding: The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction would be required to determine school funding based on a school’s enrollment during the prior school year. If a school’s enrollment increased, they could receive additional funding from a reserve fund set aside for schools with increasing enrollments. That funding mechanism would begin for the 2024-25 school year after being studied this year.
  • School buildings: The budget would provide $46 million more this year in the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, with another $4 million planned after that, bringing the total annual funding to $258 million by the 2024-25 school year. Schools have billions of dollars in capital needs that don’t have a dedicated funding source.
  • Virtual charter schools: The pilot program for the state’s two virtual charter schools would extend another year to the 2025-26 school year, making it at least an 11-year pilot program. The schools perform poorly academically, although Republican lawmakers argue that’s because of the sometimes transient nature of their student bodies. The schools would be allowed to increase their enrollment by 20% each year, as well, if certain conditions are met.
  • Early high school graduation: High schools would be required to offer three-year graduation tracks for students. Students graduating early would also be eligible for a scholarship for post-secondary learning.
  • Virtual high school: High schools in 10 school systems would participate in a pilot program allowing five days or 30 hours of instruction to be remote, in an effort to hold semester exams before winter break, instead of after it in January.
  • Youth surveys: The budget would allow two exemptions to new restrictions on student surveying from the Parents’ Bill of Rights. Parental permission would not be required for the National Youth Tobacco Survey or the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Both surveys are anonymous and are used to determine wellness programming for youth or to measure the success of existing programming. They ask students about whether they engage in certain behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, riding in a car without a seat belt or having sex without birth control.
  • Teacher license flexibility: Three-year limited teacher licenses would become renewable, instead of being nonrenewable, if the teacher meets certain performance requirements. Sometimes, limited-license teachers — who are often transitioning into teaching from other professions — don’t pass licensure exams or meet other academic requirements to move onto a new license and, consequently, leave the teaching profession. The budget would also give five-year, renewable licenses to teachers coming into North Carolina from another state, who have taught for at least three years in a state with similar licensure requirements. Currently, those teachers must provide documentation proving their classroom effectiveness before they can receive such a license in North Carolina.