News

Reports: Traditional school enrollment down in N.C., charters and private school enrollment up

Multiple North Carolina news outlets have reported this interesting tidbit of the day: According to state data, enrollment in the state’s traditional public schools declined in 2017, while charter and private school populations surged.

It’s the latest indicator of the growing influence of school choice in the state, which has seen a rapid expansion of charters and private schools under Republican leadership in the N.C. General Assembly.

From a Friday report on WRAL:

Traditional public schools, which still educate the majority of students in North Carolina, saw enrollment fall by 5,562 students, down to 1,454,290, from 2016 to 2017.

Charter schools saw the greatest jump, with 11,437 new students in 2017, followed by home schools, with 9,579 new students, and private schools, with 2,864 more students in 2017, according to state data, which was first reported by The News & Observer.

Charter schools were created in North Carolina two decades ago and now enroll nearly 90,000 students in more than 170 schools. The state funding has grown from about $16.5 million in 1997, when there were 33 schools, to more than $444 million in 2016-17.

The news comes after roughly a decade of advances for the school choice movement in the state. State lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap on charters in 2009, and today the state counts more than 170 charters.

While advocates say charters can offer an alternative to parents, critics argue their expansion in North Carolina is part of an effort to defund the traditional public school system, which continues to teach the vast majority of North Carolina students.

Lawmakers’ launch of a controversial private school voucher program seems to also contribute to the surge. The program provides scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools, although most North Carolina private schools are religious in nature, and lack the same accountability measures imposed on traditional schools.

News, Trump Administration

Report: States receiving “mixed messages” from DeVos, feds over ESSA plans

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

A new report from Education Week indicates some states completing draft plans for adhering to new federal education laws are complaining of “mixed messages” from the U.S. Department of Education and its controversial leader, Michigan GOP booster Betsy DeVos.

Federal lawmakers approved the nation’s update of education law in 2015 with the intent of eschewing powers over school accountability to states rather than the federal government. Called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, the revised law seemed to address longstanding complaints from Democrats and Republicans that the country’s older K-12 law centralized too much power in the federal government.

Now, with states turning in drafts of their plans to Devos’ agency, there seems to be some brewing discontent with the Department of Education.

The report comes with North Carolina officials planning to wrap the state’s public comment period on its draft plan July 27.

From Education Week:

The back and forth between states and Washington over the Every Student Succeeds Act has become more complicated than many had expected.

Although U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took office in February pledging to let states seize control of key education policy decisions under the new federal K-12 law, her department’s responses to states’ ESSA plans have surprised—and in some cases irritated—state leaders and others.

The U.S. Department of Education has expressed skepticism about elements of those plans, from the ambitiousness of long-term academic goals to the use of Advanced Placement exams in state accountability systems.

Last month, the Council of Chief State School Officers said the first set of feedback to three states was “too prescriptive in certain areas and goes beyond the intent of the law.” Early indications are that states won’t necessarily make sweeping changes just to please DeVos’ team.

And in an interview, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of ESSA’s architects, said the feedback letters seem to fly in the face of the law’s intention that the states—not the federal government—should be calling the shots when it comes to the details of school accountability.

“I want to nip in the bud the idea that somehow it’s business as usual in Washington,” Alexander said.

The department’s responses to states haven’t been entirely consistent. For example, Delaware—one of the first three states to get feedback from federal officials about its ESSA plan—was told by peer reviewers that its proposed use of AP courses for measuring college- and career-readiness wouldn’t fly. But the department didn’t voice the same concerns about similar approaches in plans submitted by Louisiana and Tennessee.

For states, there’s a balancing act between wanting to submit a plan that will pass legal muster at the department and wanting to take advantage of the flexibility that’s in ESSA, said Julie Rowland Woods, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States who has been tracking states’ work on the law.

“There’s sort of mixed messages coming from the department, and states are really looking for guidance on how they can complete these plans in an appropriate way,” Woods said.

So far, 17 plans have been submitted to the department from 16 states and the District of Columbia.

In June, department leaders raised concerns about elements of Delaware’s plan. Among other issues, they indicated that the state’s long-term academic goals weren’t truly “ambitious” (a term that is used in ESSA but is not defined by the law), and that the state’s plan to use yardsticks like AP scores was a nonstarter.

But in a revised plan the state sent to Washington later that month, Delaware kept options such as AP for schools to use to measure postsecondary readiness, saying that contrary to the department’s feedback, all options listed were universally available to schools serving grades 9-12. And it declined to change those long-term goals, saying that regardless of the department’s view of what counts as “ambitious,” the state’s push to cut in half the ranks of students not proficient in math and English/language arts by 2030 represented a big challenge.

“To reach these goals for the lowest-performing subgroups, it requires approximately a 3 percentage-point increase in proficiency year over year, which is extremely ambitious for our [districts],” a Delaware department spokeswoman, Alison May, said.

Still, the state did change how it planned to use science- and social-studies-test scores, after being told by the department that using them as they planned to do in their original submission would violate ESSA.

Nevada moved its science tests out of the core academic-achievement indicator and under the school quality and student-success umbrella in its revised plan, said the state’s deputy superintendent for student achievement, Brett Barley.

However, he said that many of the changes in the plan Nevada resubmitted last month involved filling in gaps for the department, including providing features like interim academic goals and more information about the relative weight of English/language arts and math scores.

“We never got feedback from them that made us say, ‘Wow, this is something that we don’t want to do,’ ” Barley said.

News

State Board of Education puts off vote on DPI cuts, names new spokesman

Superintendent Mark Johnson (left) and State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey (right)

Members of the State Board of Education emerged Wednesday with a widely-expected decision to appeal last week’s court ruling in their case with Superintendent Mark Johnson and state lawmakers, but a final decision on how to administer $3.2 million in legislative cuts to North Carolina’s K-12 bureaucracy is still in the works.

Board members were mum on the issue following Wednesday’s conference call meeting, most of which was spent in closed session discussing their legal case and personnel matters.

Nevertheless, members are expected to move quickly on their decision in the coming days.

As Policy Watch reported Tuesday, the DPI cuts are likely to cost multiple employees their jobs and slash services to local school districts. While the agency provides oversight of the state’s public school system, it also provides professional development and intervention in low-performing schools, particularly in poor and rural portions of the state.

Board Chair Bill Cobey told Policy Watch that Johnson had shared proposals for passing down the cuts, with board members providing feedback. Neither party was willing to make those proposals public however, pointing out the plans involved confidential personnel matters.

In addition to Wednesday’s decision on the court appeal, board members also took a vote to name a former state communications officer and newspaper editor as the agency’s top spokesman.

Board members unanimously agreed to name Drew Elliot to the post, replacing Vanessa Jeter, the department’s longtime communications director who retired at the end of June.

Elliot has been an editor at the North State Journal, a statewide newspaper based out of Raleigh, for less than two years. But prior to that, he was communications chief for North Carolina’s environmental regulation agency, now called the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Elliot led communications at a tense time for the department, as it shifted to GOP-controlled leadership and dealt with a firestorm of controversy over a massive coal ash spill in Eden.

“I have no doubt he’ll be a valuable addition to our staff,” said Cobey. “This, of course, is a very key role in the agency.”

Communications at DPI have been in a state of transition in recent weeks. Policy Watch reported this month on Johnson’s controversial decision to temporarily halt some communications in the agency after Jeter’s departure.

Elliot was recommended to the board by a committee that included Cobey, Johnson, state board member Greg Alcorn and DPI Deputy Superintendent Maria Pitre-Martin.

The decision comes with Johnson and the board still entangled in a lawsuit over a December law approved by the GOP-controlled General Assembly that would grant the Republican superintendent greater budgetary and hiring powers.

News

State Board of Education to talk lawsuit, DPI budget cuts this week

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

North Carolina’s top public school board is expected to discuss state budget cuts and a possible appeal of a recent court decision granting new powers to Superintendent Mark Johnson Wednesday.

State officials announced Wednesday’s conference call days after a three-judge panel sided with Johnson and state lawmakers in the board’s much-debated lawsuit. But, as if the stakes weren’t high enough, Wednesday’s meeting comes with state education leaders debating how best to administer a $3.2 million legislative cut approved by the GOP-controlled General Assembly last month.

The court case stems from a December law that sped new budgetary and hiring powers to the new Republican superintendent, a move state board Chair Bill Cobey decried as “unconstitutional.”

From  Policy Watch’s Melissa Boughton today:

The State Board of Education did not meet its burden of proof recently when arguing that lawmakers were unconstitutional when transferring power to newly elected Superintendent Mark Johnson, according to a three-judge panel.

The panel that heard arguments in NC State Board of Education v. State of NC and Mark Johnson at the end of June issued its ruling Friday in favor of the state and Johnson, although a stay preventing the law from taking effect will remain in place for 60 days to allow for an appeal.

In its memorandum, the panel cited two cases that allowed for “great deference to the acts of the General Assembly.”

“Acts of the General Assembly are presumed constitutional, and courts will declare them unconstitutional only when ‘it [is] plainly and clearly the case,’” the court document states. “The party alleging the unconstitutionality of a statute has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the statute is unconstitutional. … Where a statute is susceptible of two interpretations, one of which is constitutional and the other not, the courts will adopt the former and reject the latter.”

The panel cited some of the arguments Johnson’s attorney made; one being the final clause in Article IX, Section 5 that state’s the Board’s powers are “subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly.”

Many of the provisions of the law transferring Johnson the Board’s power “simply shift the details of day-to-day operations, such as hiring authority,” the panel wrote.

“The court further concludes that those aspects of the legislation appear to fall well within the constitutional authority of the General Assembly to define specifics of the relationship between the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction,” the document states.

The panel states that the statute continues to provide that the Board supervise and administer the public schools and make all necessary rules and regulations to carry out that function, which limits the Superintendents’s duties. Because of that, the Board failed to show the legislation violates the Constitution, they added.

That said, Wednesday’s meeting is likely to be spent mostly, if not entirely, in closed session as they discuss the ongoing lawsuit and personnel matters. Check back with Policy Watch Tuesday afternoon for a budget report.

News

School choice advocates blast Duke voucher report as “flawed”

A North Carolina school choice advocacy group, Parents for Educational Freedom in N.C. (PEFNC),  is targeting a Duke report that shredded the state’s voucher program, calling the university’s March report, among other things, “flawed” and “misleading.”

“The bottom line is this: We do not yet know how most scholarship students in North Carolina are performing on nationally standardized tests, and we do not know how scholarship students compare to other low-income students not using scholarships,” the group’s paper states.

The Duke report, released in March by the school’s Children’s Law Clinic, initially suggested the state’s voucher recipients were not performing as well as their public school peers, although the university later edited that portion, arguing instead that the state lacks sufficient data to draw that conclusion.

The controversial school choice program, launched in 2014, is supported by advocates who say the program will provide competition for traditional schools and offer another K-12 option for low-income students.

Yet critics, including the authors of the Duke report, say the program lacks sufficient accountability measures and diverts millions to primarily religious schools, some of which allegedly maintained anti-LGBTQ policies.

One key sticking point in the debate: State law allows private school leaders to choose from multiple standardized tests to assess voucher students’ program, making “apples-to-apples” comparisons with public school students difficult. Also, state law orders private schools to report testing data to the state only if they enroll more than 25 students. Yet the vast majority of private schools fall below that threshold.

Efforts to inject new accountability measures for the so-called Opportunity Scholarship Program did not survive House and Senate budget negotiations last month.

But, as The News & Observer reported in May, a study led by researchers at N.C. State University aims to make comparisons using voucher students and public school students who volunteered to take a short version of a standardized test.

“We are releasing this paper now to set the record straight,” PEFNC President Darrell Allison said in a statement Thursday. “Data to date offer no evidence that Opportunity Scholarships are unlikely to improve low-income students’ outcomes in North Carolina.”

The group argued this week that most academic research indicates such voucher programs are beneficial to students, although critics note the results have been mixed or poor.

On Friday, Jane Wettach, the report’s author and director of the Children’s Law Clinic, acknowledged a mistake in the original report, but called PEFNC’s paper this week an “overly dramatic statement.”

“I accept that criticism,” said Wettach. “In fact, I have issued a correction. But I don’t think they really found any research that is in any way flawed. All the data in the report was accurate.”

Wettach also took issue with PEFNC’s curation of supporting research in its report, which suggested private school voucher programs nationwide have, by and large, been a boon to students’ growth.

“I will completely stick to my position that, on the whole, the research does not support that voucher students make any significant gains,” she added.

And if North Carolina wants to create fair comparisons of data on voucher students, the state will need to require one standardized test for voucher students, Wettach said, although she acknowledged that could be tricky given tests adhere to a standard course of study in public schools that are not required of North Carolina private schools.

“We do seem to disagree on what is sufficient accountability,” Wettach said. “My report suggests we do not have sufficient accountability. Their paper seems to suggest that what we have is enough to get us what we need.”

This week’s paper from PEFNC comes roughly two weeks after new data mark a rocky transition to private schools for voucher recipients in Louisiana and Indiana.

Despite the controversy, state lawmakers plan to expand the voucher program by $10 million annually over the next decade. This year, the program is slated to take in almost $45 million in state funding.