SchoolsFlexibility on summer reading camps for third graders, a second chance for legislation that would require schools to stock EpiPens, and the case for continuing a Race to the Top-funded program to groom principals for service in high need schools were among the topics heard by lawmakers at today’s Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee meeting in Raleigh.

Read to Achieve

Randolph County superintendent Stephen Gainey asked lawmakers to amend legislation that requires local school districts to provide six-week summer reading camps for all third graders who don’t meet proficiency benchmarks in reading by the end of this school year.

“I’m asking you for flexibility. This is a good piece of legislation. I realize reading is a huge issue,” said Gainey, who begged lawmakers to consider shortening the provision that requires summer camps to last six weeks, instead allowing districts to come up with their own plans as long as they meet the minimum 72 hours of instruction provided to students.

Gainey endorsed a plan that would shorten the summer reading camps to three weeks, which he said would go farther to create the conditions necessary for for parents to commit to the camp and students to be able to concentrate for its duration. He expects 39.5 percent of his third graders to attend the camps. Read More

This just in from the Charlotte Observer‘s education reporter Ann Doss Helms on the closing of StudentFirst Academy in Charlotte:

The troubled StudentFirst Academy charter school will close at the end of next week, parents learned at an emergency meeting Wednesday night.

That leaves almost 300 K-8 students scrambling to find schools less than two months before the end of the school year.

“I’m up in the air. I have no idea what I’m going to do,” said Jackie Davis, the parent of second- and eighth-graders at StudentFirst.

StudentFirst began as a private school in 2001 and converted to a publicly funded charter school that opened in August. It quickly fell into financial and academic trouble. Facing queries from the state Office of Charter Schools, the board fired founders Phyllis Handford and Sandra Moss, who are now suing the board.

Consultants hired to answer state questions found academic shortcomings, unopened mail, unpaid bills, overpaid and overstaffed administration and tens of thousands of dollars in spending that hadn’t been properly documented, according to reports filed in connection with the lawsuit.

The StudentFirst board told the state last month that it owed $600,000 in bank loans and unpaid bills, but assured the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board that the school had a recovery plan that would keep the school solvent through June. The advisory board was scheduled to hold a follow-up session next week to decide whether to recommend revoking the charter.

However, in a brief press release issued Thursday morning, board chair Victor Mack said the school would surrender its charter, “discontinue school services” and release all employees effective April 15. The last day for students is April 11.

Read the full story over at the Charlotte Observer here. And for an in-depth look at what led to StudentFirst closing its doors, read this revealing story by Ann Doss Helms here.

The Walton Family Foundation, known for supporting vouchers, charters, and other school privatization initiatives across the country, paid $710,000 to NC-based school voucher advocacy group Parents for Educational Freedom NC (PEFNC) in 2013, an increase of more than $100,000 over its 2012 contribution to the group.

Parents for Educational Freedom NC has received large contributions from Walton since at least 2009. The Walton Family has paid PEFNC $275,000 in 2009, $525,000 in 2010, $625,000 in 2011 and $600,000 in 2012, according to the foundation’s website.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom NC, has seen his own compensation increase considerably as the influx of Walton money has ramped up. In 2010, Allison received $107,889 for his work running the non-profit; in 2012, Allison reported an income of $156,582—a 45 percent pay increase in just two years.

PEFNC has been the primary advocacy group responsible for bringing school vouchers to North Carolina.

Last summer, lawmakers passed the Opportunity Scholarships program, a school voucher program that would enable taxpayer dollars to be funneled directly to private schools–$10 million in 2014-15 and $40 million in 2015-16, with the goal of expanding the program even further in the future.

The law, passed as a part of the budget bill last summer, provides little in the way of accountability for private schools while reducing funds for public education at a time when schools are seeing sharp reductions in funding over a years-long period.

Parents, educators, and school boards came together late last year to file lawsuits seeking to block the implementation of the school voucher program. In February, those groups received a temporary victory when a Superior Court judge granted a preliminary injunction in the case, stopping the program from moving ahead pending a final resolution.

A D.C.-based law firm, the Institute for Justice, intervened in the school voucher case on behalf of parents who want the voucher program to move forward. That firm also received a significant donation from Walton in 2013 — $530,547.

The Walton Family recently announced plans to double the number of students enrolled in private schools with the support of publicly funded school vouchers. Naming North Carolina as one state of several where new “parent choice” laws have been passed, the Waltons will give $6 million to the Alliance for School Choice, on organization that provides model legislation for state lawmakers to use as they introduce bills that would create alternatives to public education.

To see the full list of Walton’s grantees, click here.

Statesville’s Record & Landmark reports that when McCrory presented his ideas for teacher pay last week to those attending the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce annual awards dinner, local education officials in attendance weren’t too keen on his handiwork.

Specifically, McCrory offered three suggestions regarding changing the way teachers are paid in the state: Raising the salary of a teacher with zero to five years of experience from $30,800 to $35,000; tying teacher pay to the market value of the subject taught; and allowing for raises for highly effective teachers to the point that the best classroom teachers could earn as much as a principal.

I-SS Superintendent Brady Johnson said the first two ideas especially could result in hits to teacher morale, and thought that allowing the best teachers to get paid as much as a principal was a novel concept, although it might be difficult to design an evaluation system that makes fair judgments.

On allowing for greater raises to the most effective teachers, Brinkley cautioned that numbers could be skewed toward educators who handle students with fewer issues in their personal lives, and are thus able to perform better at school regardless of who leads the classroom.

And on merit pay, Johnson offered these thoughts:

“Private sector policies or merit-based pay don’t work in public education. We don’t choose the best-skilled students, we take them all,” Brinkley said.

Johnson said he felt that the pay scale should “entice our most effective teachers to stay in the classroom and go into administration.” But, looking at the big picture, he said he thinks teachers just need to feel like their profession is appreciated and respected.

“My personal feeling about teacher pay is this: People that go into public education, they don’t go into it for the money. They know that they’re going into a profession that is never going to pay them their true worth,” Johnson said. “Most teachers would be very satisfied if they just had a livable wage – pay the rent, put food on the table. If we could get teachers to the point where they could make a living doing their calling and not worry about working part-time jobs and how they’re going to pay for their children’s college education, that would be the best thing that we could possibly do.”

Read more about McCrory’s recent teacher pay proposals here and here. And read the full Record & Landmark story here.

Happy Friday, y’all! It actually feels like spring outside, so get outside and enjoy it while it lasts!

If you’re an avid iPad user like me, you may be intrigued to learn that Microsoft finally got its act together and released a version of Office for the iPad. Critics say that it might be too late, however — iPad users have had years to get use to life without Word and have learned to love other products that have taken its place.

Speaking of tech giants, Facebook is trying to figure out how to tinker with drones so that they can deliver internet access from high above. This announcement is the second of two big ones this week: on Tuesday, Facebook also announced its acquisition of Oculus VR, a company that develops virtual reality headsets for gamers.

I thought virtual reality was a popular thing of the 1990s, back when I was a teenager? I did some digging and found proof here.

Are you a Jeopardy fan? More importantly, are you a Jeopardy master? Well in honor of Jeopardy’s 50th birthday, you can play online with 74-time winner Ken Jennings as your host in an interactive video quiz. Jennings is a little smug, so try to ignore that part.

Finally, on a more serious note, a piece of good news from my beloved home state of Maryland. The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation this week to expand protections for transgender individuals, which will mean employers, landlords and other parties will not be able to discriminate against people based on gender identity. Gov. Martin O’Malley says he will sign the law.