Commentary, Education

Editorial: North Carolina’s “frustration” over reading scores a bipartisan problem

Food for thought in Monday’s board editorial from The Charlotte Observer, which noted that the news of lagging reading scores in North Carolina should be, all budget disputes aside, a bipartisan problem.

The news has been bad for some time as it concerns Read to Achieve, a Republican-championed initiative that has, surely for a variety of reasons, failed. It’s an expensive failure too. By January, the state had already spent more than $150 million on the program since 2012.

The board makes the righteous point that now is not the time for any political grandstanding, whether you’re a critic of Sen. Phil Berger’s GOP majority or not.

From The Observer:

It’s a club of people who care deeply about education. It’s a club that possesses both data and theories regarding what might help struggling schools and students, but it’s one that understands there are no certainties — and certainly no silver bullets. It is, above all, a club that knows the reasons students struggle are complex, that we need to try a lot of fixes and fail at some, and that all of it takes money and patience.

None of which is news to Sen. Berger, who is among the shrewdest policy makers in the state legislature. But for years, Berger’s party has largely argued that investing in education initiatives is throwing good money after bad, or that the answer is not money but school “choice” — as if private schools don’t face similar challenges as public. In fact, some education advocates believe that one of the reasons Read to Achieve has failed here is that the supporting education structure around it — including teachers and, importantly, pre-K — have been insufficiently funded by the Republicans Berger leads.

Certainly, many of those education advocates know what it’s like to get disappointing results. NAEP numbers this week also showed that nationally, fourth and eighth grade reading scores essentially have remained flat for a decade. This despite years of reforms across the country that include more precise standardized testing, stricter teacher evaluations and increased attentiveness to third-grade reading scores laws.

The results have frustrated educators across the country, just as North Carolina’s numbers surely have done for Sen. Berger. His response, however, has been at least a little heartening. Instead of using disappointing numbers as an excuse to abandon an education initiative, he worked to improve Read to Achieve, even recruiting Democrat and state school board member J.B. Buxton to help. That reform bill, however, was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, who called Read to Achieve ineffective and costly.

We suspect the governor may have been holding Berger’s signature project hostage in a budget fight, just as Berger and Republicans tried to hold higher teacher pay hostage this week over that same budget. If so, that’s wrong on both counts. Investment in education shouldn’t be subject to political weaponization, regardless of who does it.

We’re encouraged, however, that state school board members are seeing a new willingness from Republican leaders to work on solutions involving struggling schools and North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District, sources tell the editorial board. We believe education progress won’t be found in ideological sniping, but with a realization from both parties that improving schools is often difficult, regularly frustrating and never something we should abandon.

Republicans deserve a heap of criticism for their education policy, which has been sorely underfunded for most of a decade, however much they have spent on early-grade reading.

But now is, indeed, the time for both parties to consider resolutions. Everything should be on the table, including funding for Pre-K, turnaround schools, and overall school spending. Since 2011, and even before the GOP takeover, there has been precious little cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. That, however you choose to spin it, should be an outrage.

What comes next, we can hope, is something new.


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