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WUNC’s Reema Khrais reports that North Carolina’s support for classroom textbooks has dwindled to rock bottom—and while you might figure that students would instead have access to comparable educational materials in the digital world, making that transition is not happening very quickly and comes at a steep cost.

Schools don’t have the money to buy books, Fairchild [DPI’s chief of textbook services] explains. He pulls out a calculator, and begins punching in numbers to see just how much less the state has invested in textbooks since 2008.

“Eighty percent.  Yeah, 80 percent [reduction],” he says.

Fairchild says that means the books aren’t keeping up with changing curriculums.

“I mean here we are saying that we’re preparing kids for a 21st century environment, and we’ve got books from 2004,” he exclaims.

In Orange County, schools rely on a local sales tax to fund personal computers for most students, calling them their “digital textbooks.” But that local school district is wealthier than most others in North Carolina that lack the resources to get students fully transitioned into a digital educational environment.

In Vance County, only some high and middle school students get their own laptops, and Ross [a Vance County instructional technology facilitator] says they need more money just to keep them up-to-date. Because the state isn’t giving enough, school officials rely on grants and local dollars, which means other areas in education have suffered. The district, for example, doesn’t have as many substitute teachers anymore.

“And that’s a sting. It seems minor, I’m sure to someone on the outside looking in, but you can tell,” she says. “We can tell.”

There’s another big hurdle when transitioning to digital. Amy Walker, director of technology at Ashe County schools, says about 75 percent of kids have internet access at home. So what about the other 25 percent?

“Exactly. And if you require for it to be digital, what are we going to do for those kids?”

North Carolina has until 2017 to get fully transitioned from textbooks to a digital environment. The House and Senate 2015-17 budget proposals both would boost funds for digital resources—but still not enough to fully make the transition for all, says Khrais.

Check out the full report online over at WUNC.

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In response to a recent order stemming from a 20+ year old court case that requires all North Carolinian children to have access to a sound basic education, the State Board of Education submitted a plan with the court last week to address how it will ensure all students succeed academically — and that proposal includes the establishment of an interagency advisory committee tasked with seeking solutions to educating at-risk students.

From the News & Observer:

In its court filing, the State Board of Education proposed establishing an Interagency Advisory Committee on Public Education to discuss the challenges at-risk students face. A hearing on the Board’s plan, part of the lawsuit called Leandro, is scheduled for July 21-23 before Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.

For years, Manning has criticized persistently low-performing schools and districts. Much of the Board’s response is a catalog of existing teacher preparation and evaluation efforts and classroom practices.

According to the State Board’s filing with the court, the committee would comprise “representatives from key child-focused entities, such as: state agencies (DPI, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Public Safety – Juvenile Justice, etc.); local boards of education; local mental health organizations; private non-profits, including representatives from the charter school community; community colleges, universities and others.”

Those stakeholders would come together to review the challenges at-risk youth face that relate to poverty, health and safety and develop recommendations for the State Board of Education as well as other agencies in an effort to improve educational access.

In their 54-page plan, the State Board highlights the successes they’ve had in supporting low performing schools since the original 1997 Leandro ruling, emphasizing existing teacher preparation and evaluation programs as well as other classroom supports as a way forward in meeting their constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to all students.

But, according to the News & Observer, many of those school improvement efforts have largely been funded with federal Race to the Top funds, which are scheduled to dry up this year. While the House has included some funds to fill in the gap in its 2015-17 budget proposal, the Senate puts the onus on local school districts in its budget to fund those programs going forward.

With the establishment of an interagency advisory committee, the State Board emphasizes that the academic success of all students cannot be accomplished by public schools alone, and that the obligation rests with every state agency as well as the public at large.

Judge Manning will review the State Board’s plan at a hearing scheduled for July 21-23.

Read the State Board’s plan here: The Mandate To Provide An Opportunity For A Sound Basic Education, An Update and Recommendation.

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Ohio’s charter schools—many of which are run by for-profit education management corporations—are notorious for misspending tax dollars and producing poor academic results. Lawmakers there had a chance to do something about it this summer by passing legislation that would strengthen charter school oversight—but that legislation ultimately failed.

From The Washington Post:

What happened? The bill — which, again, had the votes to pass — was tabled because, apparently, some lawmakers still want to make changes. The bill is supposed to come up again in September, but who really knows, given tepid efforts in the past to improve schools. Even if a bill passes later, implementation will be significantly delayed.

You’d think that the lousy state of Ohio’s charter system would have set a fire under everyone with even half a fingerprint on it. How bad is it? A June story in the Akron Beacon Journal started this way:

No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.

The newspaper had reviewed 4,263 audits released last year by the state and concluded that charter schools in the state appear to have misspent public money “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.” It says that “since 2001, state auditors have uncovered $27.3 million improperly spent by charter schools, many run by for-profit companies, enrolling thousands of children and producing academic results that rival the worst in the nation.”

So what does the state of Ohio’s charter schools have to do with North Carolina?

It’s worth taking a closer look because, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, “only Michigan and Texas have a greater portion of charter schools [than Ohio] operated by private, for-profit companies, which are not compelled to disclose how they spend public money.

In North Carolina, lawmakers lifted the cap back in 2011 on the 100-charter school limit—and since then, more and more private, for-profit education management companies have been making their way into the state, some of which have sought to hide how they spend tax dollars. Read More

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“They’ve already taken away longevity pay, master’s degree pay, and tenure…and now they’re taking away retirement health insurance,” said North Carolina Association of Educators’ vice president Mark Jewell on Monday.

“The General Assembly is saying to educators thinking of working in North Carolina: please look somewhere else. We don’t want long-term educators in our state,” said Jewell.

Senate lawmakers buried deep in their budget proposal earlier this month a provision that would end health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016. [Click here for the full story.]

NCAE’s Jewell is concerned about the provision’s implications when it comes to recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

“Under this provision—if it becomes law—teachers would have to work much later, until they can receive Medicare benefits,” said Jewell. “Or they would have to take another job once they retire to get some kind of health insurance benefit until they qualify for Medicare.”

“We have a lot of teachers retiring coupled with a large decrease in participation in teacher education programs at the university system — enrollments have fallen 27 percent since 2010,” Jewell added. “So it looks like we have a big teacher shortage ahead.”

As the cost of college soars, students are reaching a tipping point when it comes to how much debt they’re willing to take on in order to enter the teaching profession, according to NC State University’s assistant dean for teacher education, Michael Maher.

“We have students who are graduating with degrees in math and engineering making $70,000,” said Maher. “So there becomes this issue of debt load—students say ‘only if I am going to make a good salary can I take on more debt.'”

Maher, who was a high school teacher during the mid-1990s, said the teaching profession was once an attractive prospect thanks to the overall benefits package that teachers were once guaranteed.

“I thought it was great,” said Maher of teaching. “I had access to the state’s retirement system and a guarantee of good health benefits upon retirement. Now out of pocket expenses are increasing, premiums are rising, and salaries are not going up, and now this…so what’s the advantage now?”

Maher noted that the Senate’s proposal to slash health retirement benefits affects UNC faculty, too, making it difficult to retain top notch professors were the provision to become law.

Tacey Miller, a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who graduated earlier this year and just secured a job as a third grade teacher in Onslow County, said she continues to be surprised by the General Assembly’s actions.

“So much has happened with the education system in North Carolina that nothing should surprise me anymore,” said Miller. “But something like [eliminating health retirement benefits] comes out in the news and I just think, why? Where are they redistributing this money, then? Even if they reduce class sizes, you still need actual classrooms to teach the kids.”

“It just seems like we’re making it harder for people to be teachers,” said Miller.

The House and Senate are expected to spend the rest of the summer—and possibly part of the fall—hammering out a final 2015-17 budget deal—stay tuned to see if the elimination of health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.

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Colorado’s Supreme Court struck down school vouchers on Monday, finding that they violate the state’s constitution because they send public dollars to private, religious institutions.

“Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever . . . .”

“This stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear: A school district may not aid religious schools. Yet aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP [school voucher program] does,” reads the court’s opinion, announced by Chief Justice Nance E. Rice.

Read the entire Colorado Supreme Court ruling here.

Colorado’s voucher program was only operational in the Douglas County school district, the state’s third largest—but Monday’s Supreme Court ruling has implications for school districts across Colorado, according to The Washington Post.

North Carolina’s own statewide school voucher program—known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program—is on pause pending a ruling from the state Supreme Court, which could come any day.

At issue? Whether or not the Opportunity Scholarship Program violates North Carolina’s constitution—which, similar to Colorado’s, says that taxpayer dollars should be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

Click here for the latest on school vouchers in North Carolina.