How the legislature could craft better education laws

During each legislative session, education is at the forefront of budget and policy discussions. Expenditures on elementary, secondary, and higher education (the University of North Carolina plus the community college system) added up to more than $11.5 billion last year, or 58 percent of the North Carolina General Fund budget.

Oddly, the legislature has made it difficult to spend that money wisely. The reason: in each house a single standing education committee must cover it all—UNC, community colleges and K-12.

That means that the House Education committee and the Senate Education/Higher Education committee have heavy workloads. They constantly scramble to cover subjects that often have very little to do with one another. A typical education committee meeting—designed to inform legislators so they can shape new laws—has multiple speakers presenting information to the committee, sometimes as many as six presentations packed into a two-hour time limit.

Speakers are often rushed, details can be overlooked, and there is little time to absorb the material or to get extended answers to questions. With the high public profile of primary and secondary education, it is probably fair to say that higher education gets short shrift—especially community colleges, which almost seem to come up as an afterthought.

As the North Carolina General Assembly convenes for the new session, however, leadership in both the House and the Senate are considering splitting the standing education committee in two. One committee would focus on K-12 education and another on higher education, which would include the UNC system and the community college system.

Splitting each education committee into two would double the amount of time available for education issues. It would give committee members the time and expertise to drill down on the important issues facing North Carolina’s schools.

Even more important than balancing the workload of the committees is allowing legislators to specialize in particular areas of education. To craft laws effectively, some legislators should become experts. With such diverse systems—K-12 teaches 1.5 million students, UNC, just 220,000, and community colleges nearly half a million—one-size-fits-all policy solutions don’t work.

As it stands now, members of the committees must be generalists. Thus, little time is left for the details—and laws are all about details and unintended consequences when the details aren’t right.

The issues that surround each level of education are quite different. Discussions of school transportation are important, but of little interest to those whose focus is higher education. Likewise, college tuition assistance for veterans is irrelevant to those who focus on elementary and secondary education test scores.

The K-12 system decides much of its curriculum centrally. But UNC schools, departments, and even individual professors have wide latitude to decide what to teach and how to teach it.

So, while the legislature mandates the number of credit-hours that professors should teach at the UNC schools, it rarely, if ever, steps into the area of specific curriculum requirements. In contrast, the legislature delves into topics such as the teaching of U. S. history in Advanced Placement high school classes and the Read to Achieve program, which requires summer sessions for third-graders who can’t pass a key reading test.

Funding varies as well. For example, North Carolina’s K-12 system is supported primarily through state appropriations, whereas the UNC system receives more than half of its funding from sources other than the state, including student tuition, donors, and the federal government.

Creating two distinct committees would put an end to the problems of lack of time, lack of expertise, and a tendency to one-size-fits-all policies.

This is not a new idea, and was practiced for many years in the legislature (as this list of past standing committees indicates). Historically, the Senate and the House each had multiple education committees to allow legislators the time and focus for the specifics of each level of education.

Occasionally, issues arise that affect both areas. Teacher training and remediation in higher education are two of the most critical. Dual enrollment, AP standards, and SAT scores are also pertinent to higher education as well as K-12. This change would not take common concerns off the table; in fact, it would ensure that such concerns were heard thoroughly from both secondary and postsecondary perspectives.

Education affects nearly every resident of North Carolina. Such important and costly programs deserve more time and attention at the General Assembly. Splitting the education committees would accomplish that goal.

(Editor’s note: This article is being posted simultaneously on Carolina Journal Online.)

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