Modest Steps toward Freedom and Accountability

Few state-level legislative sessions have garnered as much attention as North Carolina’s did his year, as evidenced by the “Moral Monday” protests and a condescending New York Times editorial. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans controlled all branches of government, and, understandably, Republicans tried to get a lot done.

On the higher education front, there have been mostly positive (if modest) changes. The following is a list of the most noteworthy.

A Small Increase in Funding: The budget bill, which Governor McCrory signed Friday, increases the amount of funding that the UNC and community college systems will receive. For the last fiscal year (July 2012 to June 2013), the two systems were appropriated $2.576 billion and $990 million, respectively. If McCrory signs the new bill, UNC will receive $2.583 billion and the community colleges will receive $1.021 billion.

The increases, though, will still likely be called “cuts” by Democratic legislators and leaders of the two postsecondary systems, since they fall short of each system’s recommended continuation budget. The recommended continuation budget is based on a number of factors such as various costs that increase or decrease year-to-year, the end of non-recurring budget items from previous legislation, and reimbursement for changes in student enrollment.

Budget Changes 2012-13 to 2013-14

Also included in the budget bill were a number of specific changes, as well as directions for state employees to study possible policy changes.

Annual Report on “Overhead Receipts”: Overhead receipts refer to the money universities receive in addition to (and along with) federal research grants. When scholars are awarded grants, they typically come with an additional 20 to 30 percent to cover things like administrative costs, grant-writing expenses, and laboratory space.

The receipts are controversial for two reasons. For one, the state already pays for many of the things that the receipts are supposed to cover, meaning that universities receive a “double payment” for these items. For another, the money from overhead receipts has sometimes been misused, such as purchasing thousands of dollars in gourmet pizza and spending $75,000 to find a new chancellor.

From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the state required universities to pay back a portion, from 10 to 50 percent, back into state coffers. The legislature ended the requirement in 1999. The budget crisis of the early 2000s led lawmakers to reconsider the idea, although nothing came of it.

With the new bill, the legislature will require UNC schools to produce an annual report on how much they receive in overhead receipts and what they are spent on.

NC Guaranteed Admission Program: NC GAP is a measure that would require some students who would normally be accepted into a UNC school to transfer to a community college. If they complete a two-year degree, they would be “guaranteed admission” to the UNC school they had applied to (p. 144). The legislature agreed to study it. My op-ed for the Charlotte Observer praised the idea because it would save money for the state and for students. It would, however, mean a transfer of funds from UNC to the community college system and that might have been too much for UNC to swallow.

Tougher Teacher Licensure Requirements: The budget bill establishes new standards for licensing and renewing the licenses of teachers, including the provision that “standards for continuing licensure shall include at least eight continuing education credits with at least three credits required in a teacher’s academic subject area.” While the Pope Center is skeptical about the value of licensing teachers, there may be merit in strengthening the requirements for a teacher’s knowledge of subject matter (American history rather than theoretical pedagogy).

Centralized Residency Status Determination: To eliminate redundancy of effort and improve consistency, the entire UNC system will use one system to determine whether or not students are state residents or not. Previously, some students were considered residents at some schools but not at other schools (p. 136 of the bill). 

Out-of-State Tuition Increases: Beginning in fiscal year 2014-15, tuition will rise by 12.3 percent for out-of-state students at four UNC schools: UNC School of the Arts, NC A&T State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and UNC-Wilmington. It will increase by 6 percent at 10 other schools: Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, NC Central University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke, Western Carolina University, and Winston-Salem State University (UNC-Charlotte and NC State University were excluded).

UNC School of Medicine Subsidy Cut: The UNC School of Medicine will no longer receive $15 million from state taxpayers. The UNC Health Care System (UNCHCS), a chain of hospitals affiliated with the state university system (and headed by the same man who is in charge of the school of medicine), gives many millions to the school of medicine. The UNCHCS has more money than it knows what to do with, so this shouldn’t be a very painful cut. Also, since UNCHCS competes with other hospital chains, some of which are private, removing a taxpayer-funded handicap is a step towards fairness.

End Pay Increase for Teacher Master’s Degrees: North Carolina public school teachers will no longer receive automatic pay increases for obtaining a master’s degree. The practice of boosting pay for teachers with such degrees is common nationwide, but some research suggests that it doesn’t lead to improved outcomes in student learning. North Carolina appears to be the first to get rid of the practice.

Beyond the Budget

A handful of bills outside of the budget made significant policy changes, as well. 

Guns Allowed in Cars on Campus: In 2002, a student and former policeman was able to stop an active shooter at the Appalachian School of Law in Tennessee by retrieving a gun from his car. In North Carolina, it would have been illegal to stop the shooter in this way. That will change if Governor McCrory signs HB 937, which has passed the legislature and been sent to him for his signature.

A Little More Freedom for Charter Schools in Hiring Teachers: The Pope Center has long questioned the value of the teaching license credential, and now state lawmakers have made it somewhat easier to get around it. Whereas previously charter schools had to hire at least 75 percent licensed teachers, they now only have to hire 50 percent. Teachers will, of course, still have to be qualified; they just don’t have to be certified in the usual way. 

Enforcement of UNC/Community College Credit Transfers: Apparently, not all UNC institutions have been awarding the credit to transfer students that they said they would in the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement between the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System. House Bill 903 (now Session Law 2013-72), signed by the governor in early June, calls on the UNC Board of Governors to ensure that constituent universities live up to the articulation agreement. The law also calls for a biennial joint report from the two systems to ensure compliance.

Occupational Students Exempt from ACT: House Bill 587, signed by the governor on June 26, makes high school students enrolled in the occupational course of study (i.e., not college-bound) exempt from having to take the ACT test. 

Overall, the news from the General Assembly this session is cheering. We wish it were more so—for example, the bill for greater freedom in hiring teachers for charter schools cut the minimum percentage of teachers with licenses to 25 percent, but then it was changed to 50 percent at the last minute. But this is as good a session as we have seen in a long time, and we should be grateful.