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Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes at DPI and state school board

Today might have been Bill Harrison's last day as chairman of the State Board of Education. The people who know for sure aren't saying.

Former Gov. Bev Perdue named Harrison to run the board in 2009, but his term expired last year. Senate Republican leaders declined last session to reappoint board members whose terms had expired or make new appointments so the new governor could put in people he wanted.

Ricky Diaz, Gov. Pat McCrory's spokesman, said a few days ago he did not know when the announcement of a new chairman was coming. Harrison said this week he hadn't heard from McCrory when he'd be replaced.

"Let's just say I'm packing,'" Harrison quipped.

Morning Roundup: Impending GOP control neuters state school board move

A sign Republicans are assuming complete power in Raleigh soon: The North Carolina school board on Wednesday delayed action on rules that would make it much more difficult to open a taxpayer-funded charter school offering online-only classes, AP reports.

Gov.-elect Pat McCrory and GOP lawmakers support such schools, despite investigations plaguing the company behind the effort in North Carolina. Bill Harrison, state school board chairman acknowledged that the Republican-run General Assembly returning to work next month might have undone any action taken this week. Read full story here.

More political headlines:

--State legislators are considering an overhaul of the state unemployment system that includes a major reduction in benefits for laid-off workers.

State Board of Education wants money to match vision

The State Board of Education plans to go its own way in crafting a budget request for North Carolina's public schools for the next two years.

State budget officials directed the Department of Public Instruction, like other state agencies, to come up with a couple of budget scenarios for the state's public schools for the next biennium -- one with a 2 percent increase,  one with a 2 percent decrease.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education expressed its distaste for either scenario. The board is likely to put forth a third option, its preference, when it votes on a budget later this fall.

State board chairman challenges Senate leader Berger

State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison writes in his blog that more school employees will lose their jobs if the state does not replace the $258 million in federal "edu-jobs" money that school districts are using to pay their employees.

Districts must spend all their federal stimulus money before the end of this year.

Harrison is responding Senate leader Phil Berger's comments Wednesday that replacing federal money with state money is the wrong approach.

Gov. Bev Perdue's budget replaces that federal money and does more, using revenue from a proposed 3/4-cent sales tax increase to add $562 million to the K-12 budget. The added money would bring K-12 spending to about $8 billion.

Harrison warns of NC Pre-K proposed changes

The wrangling over NC Pre-K continues.

Bill Harrison, chairman of the State Board of Education, has weighed in with a blog post that takes aim at Republican efforts to privatize the state's pre-kindergarten program and narrow the population that qualifies for pre-k services.

On Thursday, the House Select Committee on Early Childhood Education will meet to finalize recommendations about NC Pre-K.

A draft piece of legislation by the committee spells out that pre-k would be offered only in private child centers, Harrison writes, which is "clearly not in the best interest of the students and families the program was designed to serve."

Funneling taxpayer dollars to for-profit day care centers would reduce the number of licensed pre-k teachers "to unacceptably low levels," Harrison writes. Public school pre-k teachers are fully licensed, he said, compared to 30 percent of those in private centers.

"Some of these organizations are focused more on the bottom line then the children served," Harrison adds. "To keep profits coming in, some private centers will cut corners and sacrifice the high quality academic program all NC Pre-K programs should provide."

Harrison said 51 percent of children in the state program are served in public school settings.

Harrison asked readers of his blog to contact members of the committee to communicate their concerns about the future of NC Pre-K. "The futures of thousands of North Carolina’s youngest, at-risk learners could be at stake," he writes.

Forecast hazy for ed budget hearings

The debate on education spending continues to rage months after the state budget passed. (Mix NCAE's Daily Political Briefing and the Civitas Institute. Throw in a little Bill Harrison.)

Conspicuously absent are the hearings that House Speaker Thom Tillis said he would hold to have local district superintendents explain their spending decisions. 

Last year during the budget debates, Tillis said the budget paid for all teachers and teacher assistants, so superintendents who laid off classroom personnel would be brought in to Raleigh to explain. 

Those hearings were expected before the end of last year. Then, early this year, possibly February. 

Or not. 

Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw said today that they will still happen, but there is no date set. 

"It will be before the short session," he said. 

Harrison: Don't take back-to-school for granted

In his blog, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison recalls the bad old days when many North Carolina children couldn't attend school.

He cites the Civil War period when education was limited to about half of children (all white and mostly boys), and the Depression, when communities nearly lost their schools because there was no money. 

"This year, as we start a new school year, let's not take back-to-school for granted," Harrison writes.  "With the third consecutive year of significant and sustained budget cuts to public schools, we need to be vigilant that our state continues its support for public education because it serves a greater good for our state and its people."

Harrison points out that the public schools are always evolving and look different than even a decade ago. He cites virtual learning, charter schools, specialty high schools, new ways of measuring accountability and evaluating teachers

"Public education drives progress in North Carolina," he writes. "Throughout history, our state has prospered when we have invested in publicly funded schools and learning. Our state has faltered when we have made education and learning exclusive, uneven or unavailable for some children. The challenge is before us."

N.C. public schools - broken or improving?

There's a raging debate about whether the state's public schools are failing or rising. The answer seems to depend on who you ask.

On Thursday, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison was vehement in his defense of the schools, which he said are improving. He cited a graduation rate that has increased from 68 percent to 74 percent in the last four years. "It's not a broken system," he said.

He did stress that some numbers show failure, namely, teacher pay, which ranks near the bottom in the country. "That's embarrassing," Harrison said. "That's broken."

Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, has repeatedly cited the statistic that North Carolina is 43rd in the nation in graduation rates. That figure apparently comes from 2007-08 data referenced by the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said he prefers to look at national standardized tests to determine success.

"I don't think we have a greatly improving system, if we're improving at all," Apodaca said. "I think our budget takes steps to make some real gains in education that they like to talk about at [the Department of Public Instruction], but seldom do anything to accomplish."

Below are some indicators published in March by the Public School Forum, based on DPI data. Judge for yourself.

State Board of Education chair: 'This budget is a disgrace'

State Board of Education chair Bill Harrison spared no words today in expressing his disgust over the Senate budget that pushes cuts onto local school districts.

At the State Board meeting this morning, Harrison let loose in a 20-minute speech that drew a standing ovation.

"If you want to dismantle the public schools, if you want to privatize them, say it," he said in comments about the Republican budget plan.

"Don't say 'we're reforming a broken system,'" he said. "Say, 'I don't care about public schools, I'm going to break an improving system and here's my budget'....Let's be honest with one another, folks."

Harrison said the Senate budget would ditch important programs and force local districts to cut at least 9,200 jobs. He said he was proud of the progress North Carolina has made in recent years, citing graduation rates that climbed from 68 percent to 74 percent in the last four years.

"Right now, folks, I'm beginning to get embarrassed," he said. "I'm embarrassed by the rhetoric, I'm embarrassed by the bashing of everyone and everything, and I think this budget is a disgrace. It's not going to do one thing to help this state."

After his remarks, the State Board unanimously passed a resolution saying the budget would have serious impact on the children of North Carolina.

Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, said the latest budget plan is $19.7 billion, slightly lower than Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue's $19.9 billion plan. He said Harrison is off base with his comments.

"For him to say with a straight face that that difference will even be discernible shows that he has difficulty with math," Stam said.

State education leaders give dire picture of cuts, tax credits

State Superintendent June Atkinson and State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison are taking aim together at the House budget.

The two co-authored a blog post saying the budget headed to a House vote would put the state -- at best -- next to last in the nation in student funding, "but it's the long-term view that's even more disturbing."

They said districts face a 15 percent reduction in staffing levels, equal to 18,500 positions in all categories, from principals and teachers to clerical staff and custodians. That, say Atkinson and Harrison, means public schools will not be able to meet basic educational needs. They advocate keeping the temporary sales tax, as Gov. Bev Perdue proposed.

They also blasted the House bill that would give families tax credits for moving a disabled child from public school to private school. They called it an "incentivized pull-out" that has "a long-term goal is to chip away at public schools in general." And, they warned, the bill for disabled students is "a foot in the door" toward tax credits for all private schools families.

"It is hard to see a bright future for a North Carolina with last place school funding and a lukewarm commitment," they wrote.

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