Friday, October 25, 2013, 9:14 AM

Money Well Spent

During the quiet times of the interim between legislative sessions I plan to share a little bit about the structure and mechanics of legislation, politics, and how decisions are made in North Carolina.

     The North Carolina General Assembly is comprised of two equal chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. It also has a Legislative Services Office which provides the support and business services to the Legislative Branch. The new kid on the block is the Program Evaluation Division which provides a blend of research and performance audit functions to legislators so that they make informed decisions about state government programs and funding. Division employees are non-partisan, professional staff who work for all legislators but answer to a legislative committee which sets the Division's agenda, receives reports, and recommends legislation.

     John Turcotte, a longtime Program Evalution professional who started his career in the 1970s in the Mississippi Legislature before leading Florida's program, then starting North Carolina's in 2007, observed that program evaluation took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s as WWII veterans began to seek elected office across America; they had literally fought in the trenches for their country and they wanted a hand in guiding it forward. The majority of states have had this function, within the legislative branch, for decades but North Carolina resisted. This then-Democratic state relied on the State Auditor for all audit functions.

     Performance Evaluation is hot right now in North Carolina. Republican electoral victories in the past two cycles following decades of Democratic control in state government set the stage. New leadership wants to make its mark on the state and it relies on Program Evaluation for the underlying research and recomendations as they tackle some of the tougher issues - like school choice, operations at the Department of Public Instruction, administration at UNC, return on investment for Pre-K programs to name a few.

     Here's an example: with the growth in charter schools North Carolina is wrestling with how to treat a new trend - public virtual charter schools. How do you count these students? Where does their per-pupil state funding go? How is their education evaluated? How does the virtual education provider get paid? Who can be a virtual education provider? These questions have been considered by the Legislature in the past year, as well as by the State Board of Education. Legislators asked and the Program Evaluation Division presented a report this week: Overview of School Choice Options Provided by Colorado's Douglas County School District: this study examines Colorado's Douglas County School District to determine whether its approach to school choice can inform education policy-making in North Carolina.

     More about the Program Evaluation Division can be found here: http://www.ncleg.net/PED/index.html. They also keep up-to-date information on how North Carolina compares to all other states in a variety of areas like taxes, population growth, per capita state debt and more. Be sure to check that out here: http://www.ncleg.net/PED/Reports/documents/NCCompares/2013%20How%20NC%20Compares.pdf.

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