Commentary, Education

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

Image: AdobeStock

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies: Read more

Commentary, Education

Senate Republican response to Leandro report is way off-base

Since gaining control of the General Assembly in 2011, Senate Republicans have expressed concern for children’s literacy. However, a recent Senate Republican press release indicates that North Carolina’s greatest literacy needs are in the halls of the Legislative Building, where Senate Republicans are unable to comprehend the recommendations of the recently-released Leandro consultant’s report and are unaware of the past 20 years of education research.

The press release claims that increases in school spending under Republican leadership will be sufficient to meet the recommendations of the Leandro consultant’s report. In reality, the Leandro consultant’s report calls for school budget increases that are about 48 times larger than what Republicans claim they will provide over the next eight years.

As the press release shows, North Carolina’s public school budgets have increased by an average rate of about 3.3 percent per year from 2010-11 to 2018-19. The 3.3 percent figure is in nominal terms; it doesn’t account for inflation or enrollment increases. It also somewhat overstates Republican budget efforts, as state spending in 2010-11 was artificially decreased by federal stimulus funding. But let’s stick with their 3.3 percent figure. Read more

Commentary, Education

Long-awaited Leandro report calls for setting new course for North Carolina’s schools

Today, the much-anticipated Leandro report was made public, giving North Carolina parents, educators, students, and education advocates have an important new roadmap for ensuring that our public schools provide every child with the education they deserve.

The report – a collaborative effort from some of the nation’s leading education experts – is a comprehensive examination of North Carolina’s public school system. The report’s recommendations have the potential to fundamentally change the direction of our state by unleashing the potential of all children to become flourishing adults, ready to contribute to a healthier, happier, and more prosperous North Carolina.

What is Leandro?

Leandro is a 25-year long court case. Throughout the case, the courts have consistently found that North Carolina has been failing to meet its most fundamental obligation under our State Constitution: providing every child a meaningful opportunity to receive a sound basic education, backed by adequate funding and resources in every public school. Additional background on the case can be found here.

Where did this report come from?

In 2017, parties to the case (the state defendants and the Leandro plaintiffs) agreed that North Carolina had been failing its children for far too long, and that the state needed a clear, comprehensive roadmap to providing a sound basic education that benefits all children. The court-appointed consultants (WestEd, in collaboration with the Learning Policy Institute and NC State’s Friday Institute) initially submitted the report to the court in June of 2019. The report was confidential until its release today.

What does the report say?

The report confirms what North Carolinians have been saying for years: The state has consistently failed to give every child in this state access to the education they deserve. Specifically:

  • A new approach is needed: While North Carolina was once making progress towards meeting its constitutional responsibilities, the past decade’s actions have left our state “further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.”
  • Providing children with what they are owed requires significant new investment: Current levels of school funding (North Carolina ranks 48th in terms of school funding effort) are inadequate to ensure all students are achieving at grade level.
  • We must direct resources where they’re needed most: Our funding formulas need to do a better job of prioritizing higher-need students and under-resourced communities.
  • More needs to be done to put qualified, well-prepared and diverse teachers and principals in every school: Educators need competitive pay, early-career support programs, professional development, and opportunities to collaborate and lead.
  • Scarcity of early-learning opportunities is leaving too many students unprepared to start school: Both Smart Start and NC Pre-K are effective programs, but funding must be restored and expanded to ensure all students enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • High-poverty schools lack the resources to help students overcome out-of-school conditions that create barriers to learning: High-poverty schools should be provided the resources necessary to expand learning opportunities and implement community school models providing health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement. Struggling schools need state-level support similar to the District and School Support teams eliminated by the General Assembly in recent years.
  • Our testing and accountability system needlessly stigmatizes high-poverty schools, rather than providing useful information about educational effectiveness: Our accountability system should instead measure schools’ progress in providing each child a sound basic education by rewarding growth in student performance and highlighting school climate and equality of resources and learning opportunities.

The report contains significantly more detail. While the report’s recommendations may appear ambitious, it’s important to remember that these steps represent the bare minimum of what it takes to for the state to provide students with the education they deserve.

What happens now?

It is now incumbent upon state leaders to implement the report’s requirements and finally fulfill their constitutional responsibility to provide a quality education to every child. Judge Lee will likely follow up with a court order, requiring the General Assembly to take certain steps.

Based on similar cases from other states, a court order alone is likely to be insufficient to compel the lawmakers to meet their constitutional responsibilities. Over the next weeks and months, it is vital that North Carolinians across our state study and learn about the report’s findings and recommendations. The Justice Center will continue to analyze the report to ensure citizens across the state are equipped with the knowledge and context to push our lawmakers to prioritize these reforms in the upcoming 2020 legislative session.

Commentary

Rogue state superintendent keeps breaking the law

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

The state schools superintendent keeps breaking the law. Strangely, nobody at the General Assembly seems to care. Similarly, the capital press corps has shown no interest in holding his rogue actions to account.

Johnson’s lawbreaking centers around two rounds of iPad purchases, neither of which were conducted in accordance with state law.

Johnson’s spending spree on iPads first became news in August 2018 when he announced a $6.6 million purchase of iPads to support early grade literacy. That sounded like good news. But as Policy Watch’s Billy Ball reported, the purchase was highly unethical. The purchase came on the heels of Johnson attending an Apple-funded junket to California where he was wined and dined by Apple executives. Additionally, the no-bid contract for 24,000 iPads violated state protocol by failing to get approval from the Department of Information Technology, the agency that oversees tech services for state agencies.

But what went mostly unreported was that Johnson had no authority to spend the money he used to purchase those iPads. State law – put into place at Johnson’s request – clearly states that the money was to be distributed to school districts so that they could make purchases that best meet their needs.

Section 2.6 of S.L. 2017-197, the 2017 Budget Technical Corrections bill, says that unspent funds from the Read to Achieve program were to be distributed to school districts (“shall be allotted to local school administrative units”). In an August appearance on WRAL’s “On the Record,” Johnson claimed this provision is what gave him the authority to purchase iPads on his own and give them to districts.

At the time of Johnson’s first round of iPad purchases, the state had already provided districts with the devices necessary to carry out Read to Achieve. Despite the lack of a pressing need, most districts decided to keep the iPads sent to them. But about 10 percent of the iPads were returned to the state, where they sat in a warehouse for over a year.

One year later, Johnson decided to break the law again to buy even more iPads. After all, what’s the best way to respond to charges of quid pro quo? Even more quo, clearly.

This time, Johnson used a different source of funds to buy even more products from the company who paid for his trip to Cupertino. At the end of the 18-19 fiscal year, there was money left over from funds appropriated to support the Department of Public Instruction, a state agency. Johnson used these funds to buy 800 additional iPads. Based on nothing more but Johnson’s whim, 200 of the iPads were sent to Ocracoke School, and 100 were sent to Junius H. Rose High School in Greenville.

One problem: it’s illegal for agency heads to simply give away state property.

Article 3A of G.S. 143 requires any excess state-owned surplus property to be distributed via the State Surplus Property Agency. That agency can then sell the property or determine ways to distribute the property to tax-supported or nonprofit tax-exempt organizations. The iPads in question were clearly state-owned, as they were bought by a state agency with state funds. And they were clearly surplus, as they weren’t needed by anyone at DPI. Distribution of these iPads at the whim of a state agency head clearly falls in violation of these laws.

This might just sound like me dinging a guy for failing to dot his i’s and cross his t’s. But the laws are in place for a reason. Imagine a different scenario in whcih Johnson was giving away cash instead of iPads. Imagine if the teachers receiving these iPads were political supporters or were personal friends of the Superintendent. What if he unilaterally decided that funds appropriated to support children with disabilities would be better used on more iPads? There are many reasons why agency heads are prevented from doing what Johnson did: redirecting state funds meant for school districts and distributing state property to others based on nothing but personal whim.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be held accountable for breaking the law twice to purchase and distribute iPads that nobody asked for, or if he will continue to break multiple state laws without consequence.

Education

NC Public School Forum to tackle the challenges facing rural schools

In October, the Public School Forum of North Carolina announced the launch of Study Group XVII to examine the unique education challenges facing students across rural North Carolina. The effort will bring together subject matter experts from across the state to identify the unique barriers to success faced by rural students and to develop policy solutions to help rural schools overcome those barriers.

Addressing the unique needs of North Carolina’s rural schools is vital to ensuring that every child in North Carolina has access to the “sound basic education” promised by our state’s constitution. North Carolina has the second-largest rural student population in the country. Compared to their urban counterparts, North Carolina’s rural schools tend to serve more students from families with low incomes. Additionally, rural schools often find it more difficult to attract teachers and provide students with the academic and extracurricular options on offer in urban districts. Finally, many rural districts face declining enrollments, forcing many districts to consider school closures and consolidations that can rend communities.

North Carolina’s rural communities are hamstrung by an economic recovery that has been largely confined to urban areas. 42 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have lost jobs since December of 2007, many concentrated in rural, eastern North Carolina. An economic agenda focused on tax cuts for corporations and wealthy North Carolinians has exacerbated the opportunity gaps faced by rural children.

The Forum’s effort is also timely. A recent report from the Rural School and Community Trust measured the depth and breadth of each state’s rural education challenges and ranked North Carolina as the second-highest priority state behind only Mississippi. The report notes that North Carolina’s rural students are at or below the national median on college readiness indicators. Additionally, the report finds that one in five school-aged children in rural schools lives in poverty and per-pupil instructional spending is more than $1,000 below the national average. They ultimately conclude that North Carolina’s rural schools face “a dire situation that needs urgent attention at the state and community levels.”

The Study Group’s work continues on November 25th with two regional meetings at Edgecombe Community College and Isothermal Community College in Rutherford County from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. Both meetings are open to the public. Those who wish to attend are encouraged to RSVP here.