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Rep. Graig Meyer
photo credit: North Carolina General Assembly

Lawmakers have filed several measures this spring that are intended to fix what they say is the design flaw in the way North Carolina’s new A-F school grades are calculated, including a bill filed last week by Rep. Graig Meyer and Rep. Paul Luebke that would change the formula for school grades so that they better reflect a school’s ability to help students grow in their academic performance over time and allow for other measures of quality to be reflected in the grades.

But Meyer says he doesn’t expect his bill to be heard in committee at all – and he figures none of the handful of proposals out there to fix A-F school grades is going anywhere.

“The Senate has indicated they won’t do anything this session to address fixing A-F school grades,” said Meyer.

The only thing lawmakers are willing to move on, said Meyer, is to keep the more generous grading scale in place a little longer.

The first set of school grades that came out earlier this year, based on data from the 2013-14 school year, were calculated based on a 15 point scale. Schools receiving As, for example, had to score between 85 and 100 points. Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, however, grades are scheduled to be calculated using a 10 point scale—but lawmakers are considering a measure to keep the 15 point scale in place another two years.

“It’s a simple way to get consistency over a three year period,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a sponsor of the bill.

It’s also a way to avoid the likely scenario that a whole lot more schools would receive Ds and Fs by moving to the stricter scale right off the bat.

Critics have assailed North Carolina’s new A-F school grading system for its overemphasis on how students perform on standardized tests on a given day, rather than how students improve on those tests over time. The formula for assigning letter grades to schools has resulted in almost all Ds and Fs for schools serving high poverty student populations, while more schools that serve largely affluent families received higher grades.

Proponents of the A-F school grading system, which currently reflects student performance on a given day on standardized tests (80 percent of a letter grade) and, to a lesser degree, how students improve on those tests over time (20 percent of a letter grade) say it provides the public with a better understanding of how well schools are educating students.

But others say the measure fails to sufficiently account for the academic growth that good schools help students achieve and does not take into consideration the challenges that schools serving a high number of poor students face.

An N.C. Policy Watch report surveyed how the A-F school grading model, which is the brain child of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is faring in other states, finding that these school grading models have raised concerns and questions about how effectively they improve public education, how fair it is to punish schools that serve disadvantaged communities, and the potential for politicians to game the system for their own benefit.

In addition to Rep. Meyer’s proposal, other measures filed aimed at fixing North Carolina’s A-F school grading formula include a bill that would provide schools with two separate letter grades, one reflecting students’ performance on standardized tests and another reflecting growth over time; a bill that would change the formula so that 40 percent of a school’s letter grade would reflect student performance, and 60 percent would reflect student growth; a bill that would change the formula to 20 percent performance, 80 percent growth; and a bill that would change the formula to a 50/50 split.

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2015 NC Teacher of the Year Keana Triplett
photo credit: NC Department of Public Instruction

Ashe County High School English teacher and newly minted North Carolina Teacher of the Year Keana Triplett is also a graduate of the highly praised yet now abolished NC Teaching Fellows program – and she says the program’s dismantling is one of the single biggest mistakes ever made in public education.

“The Teaching Fellows program has made that much of a difference in my career,” said Triplett in an interview with N.C. Policy Watch. “I would not be the teacher I am today were it not for the Teaching Fellows program.”

The North Carolina Teaching Fellows program launched in 1986 as a way to attract more North Carolinians to the profession of teaching and keep them in the state. Funded by taxpayers, the program offered education students four-year tuition scholarships in exchange for promising to teach in North Carolina for at least four years.

The program has been widely praised for creating a high quality teaching pool from which local school systems can draw upon, and its graduates tend to stay in the classroom and in North Carolina for a long time. Its positive results are held up high by many education policy experts and advocates who then point to the troubling news that North Carolina’s public university system saw a steep enrollment decline in the last four years in undergraduate and graduate teaching programs, amounting to a 27 percent drop from 2010 to 2014.

But lawmakers initiated the Teaching Fellows program’s demise a few years ago, and the last of its fellows will graduate this year. Funds for the program have been diverted to the controversial Teach for America program, which overall has a poorer record of retaining high quality teachers in North Carolina in the long term.

Triplett explained that the Teaching Fellows program, which allowed her to pursue her dream at Appalachian State University to become a teacher, also provided value that went far beyond the financial benefit— it also provided students with a clinical component to their education, a model that national experts say is critical to the improvement of teacher preparation programs.

As a Teaching Fellow, Triplett was afforded the opportunity to get inside a classroom beginning with her freshman year of undergrad—something most teacher education students don’t get to experience, she said.

“I watch beginning teachers struggle with classroom management, which is one of many things that can’t necessarily be taught in a university setting but is learned in the classroom—and I got to experience that before I ever got into a teaching position,” said Triplett.

For students studying to become secondary school educators, Triplett said that on-the-job training doesn’t typically happen until senior year of college.

“And by that point, it’s too late. If [high school] is not where [teacher education students] are supposed to be and that’s not what they enjoy, then they don’t know that until that’s too late. Because they can only discover that by being in the classroom,” said Triplett.

Triplett said she’s deeply disappointed that lawmakers have chosen to do away with the Teaching Fellows program.

“The Teaching Fellows program recruited students from every county in North Carolina who were passionate about becoming educators, and the program fostered in them a love of learning and a love of the profession — and that’s why so many of them are in the classroom today,” said Triplett.

“I think it’s one of the biggest mistakes that has ever been made in public education,” Triplett said.

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A bill moving through the General Assembly would award $2 million over two years to Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) to help expand the number of charter schools throughout the state.

Sponsored by Reps. Bryan (R-Mecklenburg), Brockman (D-Guilford) and B. Brown (R-Pitt), HB 535, “Promoting Charter School Success Pilot” would also allow participating schools to have greater flexibility in expanding their enrollments. Funds can support up to four charter schools each year and PEFNC can make initial planning grants of up to $250,000.

PEFNC is a private, pro-school privatization organization headed by Darrell Allison that is perhaps best known for promoting school vouchers. The organization has received millions of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation (owners of Wal-Mart) over the past several years. The Waltons are known for supporting education initiatives such as vouchers, charter schools and other privatization measures.

Allison’s group has been the beneficiary of similar legislation filed in past years. In 2013, lawmakers proposed giving PEFNC $1 million over two years to develop charter schools in rural parts of the state, but that measure did not pass. A similar bill was filed last year too, but also did not survive.

The 2013 legislation also required PEFNC to match state funds; no such provision appears in the 2015 bill.

Charter schools continue to receive considerable attention and support in the state legislature, years after the 100-school cap was lifted in 2011.

Senator Jerry Tillman is sponsoring a bill that would make it easier for national for-profit charter school management firms to expand their presence in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers are concerned about the lack of transparency employed by charter school operators, which are wholly funded with taxpayer dollars yet are able to hide how they spend their money. For more on that, click here.

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Hats off to the Charlotte Observer’s Andrew Dunn, who published a series of stories this weekend about how for-profit education management organizations that operate charter schools in North Carolina are allowed to keep secret, to some extent, how they spend taxpayer dollars — and how that reality can ultimately contribute to the abuse of public money.

From Dunn’s story:

Six private charter school management firms currently oversee millions in state dollars for public education in North Carolina.

The structure of these schools has benefits. The financial backing a company provides offers stability, and management organizations bring refined curriculums and training programs, said Eddie Goodall, executive director of the Charlotte-based North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association. They also often have strong records of academic performance.

But other states with longer charter school track records have had problems. In many cases, the lack of transparency at their management companies has made it more difficult to detect issues. Among the examples:

  • The founder of Bay City Academy in Michigan was convicted of three counts last month related to tax fraud for shuffling money intended for the charter school through his management business and personal accounts to avoid taxes.
  • A charter school in Washington, D.C., had its charter revoked in Februaryafter authorities accused it of improperly shifting public money to the management company. D.C. charter school officials said they had a hard time obtaining financial records from the company. Earlier, D.C. officials had accused another management company of receiving exorbitantly high prices for services at several charter schools.
  • In New York, the Office of the State Comptroller sought to get informationfrom National Heritage Academies after saying state officials couldn’t determine how $10 million in taxpayer money was being used. The company refused to provide full financial reports. New York no longer allows new charter schools to contract with for-profit companies.

“Transparency is a serious issue,” said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who has studied charter schools extensively. In Michigan, nearly 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit management companies. “Transparency laws would help, but they must invade the proprietary space of (management companies) because of the public need to know.”

Dunn also highlights six management companies’ disclosure practices, management fees and executive pay rates in his story.

Next year, for example, Cabarrus Charter School will for over $800,000+ in taxpayer dollars in management fees to its parent company, Charter Schools USA.

Last week, Governor Pat McCrory and Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathan Hage toured one of the company’s three charter schools, Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary. Senator Jerry Tillman is sponsoring a bill this year that would make it easier for national for-profit charter school management organizations to expand their presence in the state going forward.

Click below to read all of Dunn’s stories on for-profit charter school management firms.

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Governor Pat McCrory and Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathan Hage

Governor Pat McCrory and Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathan Hage

Governor Pat McCrory toured a Cary charter school Thursday with the head of that school’s for-profit education management organization, Charter Schools USA.

“He’s just here to highlight a good school,” said Eric Guckian, McCrory’s education advisor, when asked what prompted the Governor’s visit Thursday to Cardinal Charter Academy, which opened its doors to grades K-6 last August.

Jonathan Hage, the CEO of Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based education management organization that operates three charter schools in North Carolina and 70 schools overall in seven states, told N.C. Policy Watch he’d like to increase the number of schools his EMO operates in the Tar Heel state.

“We hope to earn the opportunity [for expansion] by doing a great job here,” said Hage in reference to Cardinal Charter, pointing to the school’s use of “high technology” and a strong discipline policy.

Hage, who has reportedly contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns around the country, also cut checks to three North Carolina lawmakers’ campaigns in 2014 — $2,500 each to Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln) and Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus, Union).

Gov. McCrory & Charter Schools USA CEO Hage

Gov. McCrory & Charter Schools USA CEO Hage

“We support anyone who supports more school choice for kids and does that in a responsible way,” said Hage when queried about his campaign donations.

Last week, Senator Tillman filed legislation that would make it easier for national education management organizations, like Charter Schools USA, to expand and replicate their model across the state.

It’s not the first time Sen. Tillman has filed legislation that would ease the path for for-profit national EMOs. Last year, Tillman sponsored legislation that set up a fast-track process for replication of high quality charter schools and a process for EMOs to take over other failing charter schools.

Tillman and other GOP leaders have reportedly expressed frustration in the past about the pace of charter school expansion in North Carolina since the 100 school cap on the number of charters allowed to operate in the state was lifted back in 2011.

Last year, Charter School Advisory Board member Alan Hawkes rebuked his colleagues for failing to greenlight more charter schools, saying GOP leaders want to see “operators come into the state like they did in Louisiana and other states and quickly affect the public school choice landscape for the better and in quantity.”

Hawkes also indicated in an email to other Charter School Advisory Board members that he received heat from Sen. Jerry Tillman about the low number of approved charter school applications.

Charter Schools USA has come under criticism for running a real estate racket in Florida. A report by the Florida League of Women Voters finds that the for-profit EMO diverts taxpayer money for education to private pockets through shady dealings that result in high real estate leasing fees – paid for by the public.