An array of organizations have voiced suppCommon Core picort for the embattled Common Core Standards following recent efforts to drop or water down the standards in states like Indiana, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Aside from original supporters and developers of the standards like the National Governor’s Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Gates Foundation, and Achieve, the Common Core has garnered support from the United States Army (including retired United States Army Generals from North Carolina), the United States Chamber of Commerce, scores of higher education institutions, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Council on Education, the College Board – the list goes on and on. Some of these groups rarely weigh in on educational issues, and those that do almost never express this type of broad agreement with one another. There is a growing concern that the mounting opposition to the Common Core Standards in various states is based more on a mix of ideology, mythology, and a conflation of the Common Core with the excessive over testing of students than with the standards themselves.

 
Yesterday, North Carolina policymakers continued their efforts to back away from the standards in a somewhat unusual House education committee meeting. Every education expert who has studied the Common Core Standards agrees that they are an improvement over the previous North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Yet the North Carolina legislature has delved into the topic of educational standards that has traditionally been under the authority of the North Carolina State Board of Education. It is still possible that North Carolina’s legislation could lead to the adoption of a different set of high quality standards like those in place in Massachusetts or simply a modification of the Common Core Standards, but the prospect of potentially moving backwards toward the less effective set of standards that were previously in place is causing uncertainty and confusion for the state’s educators.

Over the last 40 years, 9-year-old and 13-year-old students have made significant achievement gains according to a report released yesterday on long-term trends in reading and mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Virtually every subgroup of today’s students scores higher in reading and math when compared to their counterparts in the 1970’s. This was true across all levels of achievement, with lower- and middle-performing students making the greatest gains. Gender gaps have narrowed too, with boys closing the gap in reading and girls making gains in math.

Racial and ethnic achievement gaps have also narrowed. Achievement has improved for white, black, and Hispanic students, but black and Hispanic students have narrowed the gap by making larger achievement gains than white students.

Scores have remained steady on some measures while improving on others for 17-year-old-students. Peggy Carr, associate commission of NCES’ assessment division, attributed this mixed bag to the dramatically reduced dropout rate. 17-year-olds that would have dropped out in the 1970s are staying in school and in many cases keeping up with their peers today.

Progress has slowed somewhat since the last long-term trend NAEP assessment in 2008, as scores remained stagnant on some measures and showed very slight improvement on others. There are currently 35 states, including North Carolina, where school funding levels were lower for the 2012-13 school year than they were before the Great Recession began in 2008 even before adjusting for increases in the student population and inflation. North Carolina has reduced education funding disproportionately, cutting over 10% of per pupil expenditures to fall to 48th among states. While the long-term improvements in educational outcomes are encouraging, these gains appear to be jeopardized by the short-term disinvestment in education that has occurred over the last five years.

At the Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting today, the North Carolina House unveiled the education section of their budget bill. While the unfortunate convention of loading the budget with policy changes in the special provisions section is nothing new, the education-related provisions of the House’s budget proposal go exceptionally far.

Most notably, a bill creating a voucher program (HB 944) that would divert $100 million from public to private schools over the next three years is included in its entirety in the House budget’s 97 pages worth of public education special provisions. The controversial and unpopular voucher scheme faced bipartisan opposition when it was narrowly approved by the House Education Committee on May 27th. If this provision remains part of the budget, vouchers could become law in North Carolina without ever being subjected to a standalone vote on the floor of either the House or the Senate.

Here is a sampling of the many education policy changes embedded in the omnibus budget bill:

Students with Disabilities and Limited English Proficient students would be ineligible for North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten:  In spite of the fact that students with disabilities and limited English proficient students benefit most from early educational intervention, both are incomprehensibly removed from the eligibility definition in the Health and Human Services portion of the budget special provisions.  The income eligibility standard that families must meet to participate is also reduced from 75% of the State Median Income (equivalent to about $42,819 for a family of three) to 130% of the federal poverty level ($24,817 for a family of three).

Larger classes, especially in the early grades: Limits on class sizes in grades K-3 are removed, as are overall teaching load limits for teachers in grades 7-12.

No salary increases for teachers with masters degrees: In another hit to North Carolina’s already underpaid teaching force (currently ranked 46th in the nation in teacher compensation and falling fast), new teachers possessing masters degrees would no longer receive any salary supplement.  Currently new teachers receive a supplement of a little over $3,000 if they have a masters, accounting for about a 10% bump in pay.

Older school buses: The House special provisions replace the current law stipulating that school buses must be replaced every 200,000 miles or 20 years with a provision that buses won’t be eligible for replacement until they reach 250,000 miles. Buses operated for less than 150,000 miles are ineligible for replacement regardless of how old they are, and buses less than 15 years old could not be replaced until they reach 300,000 miles.

Initial reports of the Senate’s proposed budget focused on the transfer of 2,500 North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten (NC Pre-K) slots to the child care subsidy in 2013-14 and 5,000 slots in 2014-15. However, the actual number of students being served will decline even more dramatically than these numbers suggest. There are currently over 29,000 students served by NC Pre-K. Under the Senate budget proposal, the number of children enrolled in NC Pre-K will actually decline by 7,500 slots in 2013-14 and 10,000 slots in 2014-15.

The reasons for this additional massive loss of NC Pre-K slots are somewhat complex. In 2012, then-Governor Beverly Perdue issued an executive order reinstating 6,300 NC Pre-K slots in order to comply with a decision by Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning holding that “[t]he State of North Carolina shall not deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program (NCPK).” Judge Manning’s decision followed a 20% reduction to the NC Pre-K program in the 2011 legislative budget. Judge Manning’s decision has since been affirmed by the Court of Appeals and is on appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Although the executive order called for the reinstatement of 6,300 pre-kindergarten slots, in the end enough funding was provided for just 5,000 slots.

These slots are not part of the baseline budget because they were created by executive order rather than in the legislature’s budget bill. These slots will expire at the end of this school year and will disappear unless they are enshrined in the 2013 biennial budget. That is precisely what Governor McCrory’s budget attempted to do by adding 5,000 pre-kindergarten slots to the baseline budget, which would allow the program would remain at its current size.

The Senate’s budget proposal cuts 2,500 slots in 2013-14 and 5,000 slots in 2014-15 in addition to the 5,000 slots that will be lost due to the expiration of Governor Perdue’s executive order. Here is what the overall impact of multiple rounds of cuts to NC Pre-K would look like if the Senate’s budget proposal is adopted:

Year Number of Children Served
2008-09 34,876
2009-10 31,197
2010-11 30,767
2011-12 24,757
2012-13 29,644
2013-14* 22,144
2014-15)* 19,644

Source: NC Treasurer’s Office, available at https://www.nctreasurer.com/slg/State%20Compliance%20Supplements/DHHS-50-2012.pdf

* Based on Senate Budget Committee Report, available at http://www.ncleg.net/sessions/2011/budget/2011/MoneyReport-5-31-11.pdf

Tomorrow afternoon, the North Carolina Senate is set to vote on SB 337, which creates a Public Charter School Board that is separate from the State Board of Education and does away with the Charter School Advisory Council.  This bill would needlessly exempt charter schools from any requirement that teachers be certified.

Under current law, just 50% of charter school teachers in middle and high school and 75% of charter school teachers in elementary school are required to be certified.  SB 337 removes even this minimal floor and allows charter schools to operate without any certified teachers.  Charter schools can already employ many uncertified teachers, and teachers outside of core subject areas in grades 6-12 are not even required to be college graduates.  There is no reason to lower the bar even further when it comes to who can teach children in charter schools.

Parents want their children to be taught by high quality teachers and they expect that teachers will possess education and certification in the area they are instructing.  Research confirms what parents already know – certified teachers do a better job of educating children.  Dr. Helen Ladd from Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy found that North Carolina students who were taught by uncertified teachers suffered losses in student achievement when compared to children who were taught by certified teachers.

According to State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey, this bill would also create an unconstitutional school board.  The State Board of Education, charged in the North Carolina Constitution with overseeing the state’s education system, presently relies on the Charter School Advisory Council to review charter school applications and make recommendations regarding the approval and oversight of North Carolina’s charter schools.  Both bodies have been working to develop and implement a system of charter school oversight and approval that grows charter schools responsibly.   SB 337 would create a completely separate school board that makes charter schools less accountable and loses the progress that has been made toward creating a meaningful approval and oversight process.

The original purpose behind public charter schools was that they would work together with traditional public schools to share best practices and innovative teaching techniques, ensure that services and educational programming are not needlessly duplicated, and generally make sure that charter schools and public schools are working together to serve the diverse needs of all children in the state.  SB 337 would lower the quality of the teaching force in charter schools, stifle charter school oversight and accountability, and create an unconstitutional board that pits one public school system against another rather than foster collaboration.