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Amid push for school calendar flexibility, N.C. lawmakers look to study effects on student achievement

A pair of bills filed in the state House of Representatives this week would grant local school districts more flexibility in developing their own calendar and launch a pilot project aimed at studying the effects of an amended school calendar on student achievement.

A bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers filed House bills 389 and 375 amid a bevy of drafts already offered this session that would allow local school boards greater power over their calendar.

State law provides that public schools, with the exception of year-round schools, should return from their summer break no earlier than the Friday closest to Aug. 26 and complete school no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

But, given education research suggests shorter summer breaks may speed positive impacts on student achievement, some have long argued North Carolina officials should revise their statutes.

One proposal filed this week would give school boards the ability to reschedule their opening date to coincide with their local community colleges, providing they do not resume operations any earlier than Aug. 15.

Another bill gives 20 counties from across the state—many of them low-income, rural counties with struggling school systems—the option to participate in a three-year pilot program in which they would have the power to reconvene school around Aug. 10.

“These are counties that we’ve got to try something different,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-sponsored both bills. “Because what we’ve been doing is not working.”

Horn said House lawmakers have long sought to tinker with the school calendar, but failed to gain much traction in the state Senate.

This year, Horn said he believes there may be a greater willingness to take up the issue, pointing to the dozens of local calendar bills already in the works in both chambers and students’ greater access to digital education content.

“I’m not going to waste everybody’s time running bills that I know aren’t going to pass,” added Horn. “If I know I’m going to get whipped, I’m not going to get into the fight.”

Districts could begin the program as soon as the 2018-2019 school year, and officials with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction would provide annual reports that would detail the impact on student performance and summer internships.

Additionally, the State Board of Education and the Department of Commerce would separately report to UNC’s School of Government on the program’s effects.

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DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson taps another former McCrory staffer

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

North Carolina’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction is again turning to some old faces to implement his vision for school administration.

Johnson’s office announced Wednesday that the new Republican superintendent hired Chloe Gossage, a former policy director for ex-Gov. Pat McCrory, to act as his top legislative liaison and chief budget advisor.

Before working in McCrory’s office, Gossage worked for six years in the legislature’s fiscal research division and for two years at the Administrative Office of the Courts. She was also a former staffer at the conservative Civitas Institute. Here’s a somewhat dated opinion piece from Gossage on her vision for education reform back in 2008.

“I am excited that Chloe is bringing such tremendous legislative, budget and policy experience to our team, and she will be instrumental in furthering my goal of transparency in school finance,” Johnson said in a statement.

As Policy Watch noted in January, Johnson has already added a pair of former McCrory staffers to his office.

As is often the case during a political transition, the DPI superintendent’s office has been in a state of flux since Johnson took over for longtime Democratic superintendent June Atkinson in January. Meanwhile, Johnson is entangled in a pending lawsuit with the State Board of Education over expanded DPI hiring and firing powers given to him by the Republican-controlled legislature in December.

State board members, who are also Republican, have blasted that law as “unconstitutional.”  

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State Board of Education names head of controversial Achievement School District

New Achievement School District Superintendent Eric Hall

A controversial program that may turn over control of low-performing schools in North Carolina to for-profit charter operators has its new chief.

Members of the State Board of Education named Eric Hall, president and CEO of Communities in Schools, a Raleigh nonprofit that specializes in dropout prevention, as superintendent of the district Thursday morning.

Hall’s organization is touted for their efforts in more than 300 schools across the state, identifying high-needs kids and providing specialists who work to increase attendance and engage with parents and families.

Both State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey and N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson applauded the news in a statement Thursday.

“We are extremely pleased that Dr. Hall will lead this new initiative,” said Cobey. “His success in working with students at risk and schools with high percentages of at-risk students will only benefit the new Achievement School District. His proven ability to build partnerships will help this effort be successful.”

Prior to his work at Communities in Schools, Hall served for more than seven years as national director of education services at AMIkids, a Florida-based national nonprofit that provides intervention for troubled youths.

Hall takes over a model of education reform expected to be under intense scrutiny in its first years in North Carolina. The model, which will allow charter operators to assume control of five chronically low-performing public schools, has been implemented to mixed results, great controversy and reports of inappropriate spending in states like Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan.

Charter operators will take over school leadership, curriculum and hiring and firing powers of the school’s staff.

Conservatives and school choice supporters tout achievement school districts as simply another option for improving academics in long-struggling schools, many of which are located in low-income locales. But traditional public school supporters point to middling results in other states as reason to look elsewhere for improving these schools, urging state officials to instead invest more in state-run school turnaround services.

As Policy Watch reported last year, the proposal spurred heated debate in the legislature over intervention in long-troubled schools and districts.  State officials are expected to move quickly on forming the district this year, with schools tapped for the program in the coming months.

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Amidst charter boom, Durham schools official talks promoting traditional public schools

Durham Board of Education Chair Mike Lee

Here’s a fascinating report from The Herald-Sun‘s Greg Childress on how at least one Durham schools leader is responding to charter schools’ rapid growth in his district.

Amidst reports that the county’s charter student population could approach 7,000 next year—close to 20 percent of Durham Public Schools’ total enrollment—school board Chair Mike Lee is calling for the school district to promote itself better.

From The Herald-Sun:

Speaking at a Durham Board of Education work session last week, Lee said DPS can no longer afford to concede enrollment losses to the county’s 13 charter schools.

“What are we doing to get those kids back?” Lee asked. “Are we counter-advertising?”

Lee noted that he frequently sees advertising on social media for Discovery Charter School, a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.)-themed middle school planned for Northern Durham that’s expected to open in September with 350 sixth-and seventh-graders.

“I don’t see an ad for our S.T.E.M. [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] middle school programs — Lowe’s Grove, Neal, Lucas or the great things at Carrington or Little River,” Lee said.

He said DPS must begin to aggressively use social media, web advertisements, web videos and other strategies to reach families.

“We need to do anything we can do to reach those families thinking about sending their children to charter schools,” Lee said in an interview Tuesday.

The renewed push to better sell DPS to families started a week or so ago.

It has been a topic of conversation for about three years, but talks stalled after DPS was forced to layoff key personnel in its public relations department last year,

So over a recent lunch, Lee and board colleague Xavier Cason agreed to revive the discussion about the development of a marketing strategy to get more families through the doors of DPS schools.

Both believe that if parents visit schools, meet principals and teachers they will feel comfortable sending their children to DPS schools.

“I want to make sure parents are aware of the great things we have to offer in spite of what they otherwise hear,” Cason said. “If citizens were informed about what’s really happening in Durham Public Schools, we wouldn’t be talking so much about declining enrollment.”

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In bid to recruit teachers, California weighs income tax exemption

Here’s one innovative approach to solving a nationwide teacher shortage: Exempt educators altogether from paying income taxes.

That’s the proposal out of California, according to a report this weekend from the U.S. News & World Report.

It comes as states, including North Carolina, struggle to bait young people into joining a profession notorious for long hours and low pay. In North Carolina, it’s a major problem, with state reports pointing to droves of exiting teachers amid waning interest in teaching programs in the university system. 

Officials say California’s proposal marks the first time a U.S. state has considered such a landmark tax exemption for teachers, although states have talked over similar proposals for law enforcement officers.

From the U.S. News & World Report:

“There’s no other state in the country that has singled out teaching in the classroom as a profession that should not be taxed,” says Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, a grassroots education advocacy organization in California that’s backing the proposal.

He continued: “We have a problem in California and we can’t deal with a problem that’s this serious by tinkering around the edges and putting Band-Aids on it or hiding it. We are hiding the issue. This bill is finally bringing out to the sunshine of California how serious the problem is.”

Teacher shortages are a local issue, with teachers in some parts of states competing for few slots while other parts of the same state are starved for educators. But California has borne the brunt of what’s increasingly considered a national teacher shortage crisis.

According to a survey of 211 California school districts, 75 percent reported having a shortage of qualified teachers for the 2016-17 school year, and 80 percent said the shortages have gotten worse since the 2013-14 school year, especially with regard to special education, math, science and bilingual teachers.

To counter the shortage, the state has largely relied on hiring underqualified teachers, filling slots with substitutes or asking educators to teach classes outside their subject area expertise.

Indeed, data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the California Department of Education show that during this school year 155,000 students in California public schools are being taught by adults who lack the required state credentials to be full-time teachers.

For new teachers, the proposal would translate into approximately 3.4 percent salary increase annually. A first-year teacher earning $44,746 a year, for example, would be able to write-off up to $1,265, roughly 2.8 percent of their salary, in addition to offsetting the costs of additional credentials or a master’s degree that the state requires.

For veteran teachers, the proposal would be equivalent to a 4 to 6 percent salary increase annually. A year-six teacher with a salary of $59,728 would no longer be taxed $2,483, representing a 4.2 percent salary increase.

Overall, the proposal would cost $617.5 million annually, according to preliminary estimates by EdVoice – $9 million of which would help offset the cost of the additional teacher training the state requires and $608.5 million of which would provide the tax exemption for classroom teaching income.

“[The bill] addresses the immediate teacher shortage and sends a loud and clear message across the state and nation: California values teachers,” said state Sen. Henry Stern, a Democrat who co-sponsored the proposal. “We will help train you and we want you to stay in the classroom.”

The costs would be offset by short- and long-term benefits. For example, if the bill results in a 50 percent decrease in teacher turnover, as EdVoice predicts it would, California school districts would save $123.5 million annually.

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