After hours of deliberation last night, the Wake County School Board voted to revise the county’s controversial student choice plan.  The revisions include tying addresses to specific schools as well as promoting student achievement, proximity, and stability.  The previous plan placed student achievement low in the order of priority for student assignment, but the revisions will presumably make student achievement more of a focus.

Critics of the former policy include families who received no school assignment under the first rounds of the choice plan, real estate agents concerned about the uncertainty generated by having no base assignments to identifiable schools, and newcomers to the system who are automatically placed at the bottom of the priority list.  There are many other concerns about the choice plan including increased transportation costs resulting from the complex web of bus routes needed to sustain the choice plan, increased concentration of poverty in poorer schools, and difficulties on the part of families trying to understand how the choice plan actually works.

Aside from the practical problems emanating from the choice plan that are addressed, these revisions recognize the importance of avoiding high concentrations of low achieving students.  The research is clear that these schools harm students and are simply too costly for districts to maintain.

After the vote, John Tedesco, a board member who voted against the revisions, acknowledged the inherent hypocrisy of criticizing the current board for making big changes in student assignment given the actions of the previous board in a quote to the News and Observer:  “I would caution you as my fellow colleagues not to follow the same path,” Tedesco said. “I’ll put it out there – learn from my own mistakes.”

The only thing better than learning from one’s own mistakes is correcting them – that is precisely what these revisions do.

The 150+ pages of special provisions contained in the Senate’s budget bill meander well outside the bounds of budgetary policy and into the arena of pure educational policy, including over 30 pages of text cut and pasted from an omnibus education bill that was already passed by the Senate.  That bill (Senate Bill 795 – The Excellent Public Schools Act) is modeled on the seriously-flawed policies currently employed in Florida that are currently resulting in plummeting test scores.

The education-related special provisions contained in the Senate’s budget would have significant policy impacts:

Student Retention – Puts third graders who do not pass their end-of-grade reading tests in jeopardy of retention solely on the basis of a test score.

  • In the first year Florida implemented this retention policy, 13.2% of third graders were retained.
  • This year, only 56% of Florida’s 3rd graders demonstrated proficiency on the end-of-year writing assessment, meaning that almost half of all 3rd graders are now in serious jeopardy of being retained.  Only 27% of 4th graders demonstrated proficiency on the writing assessment.
  • Almost half of North Carolina 3rd graders would also be in jeopardy of retention next year under this law.

 “Grades” for Schools – Assigns letter grades to schools but provides no additional resources to schools with poor grades.

  • In Florida, state education administrators project that this year, the number of ‘A’ schools will drop from 1,636 to 1,086.
  • The number of ‘F’ schools will more than triple from 38 to over 130.
    • To avoid chaos and growing outrage from parents, the state is lowering state standards to make it easier to demonstrate proficiency and will not allow schools to fall more than one letter grade in its grading system.

Doing Away with Career Status – Makes attracting highly qualified teachers more difficult by doing away with career status for teachers and putting all new teachers—and even some experienced teachers—on one-year contracts.

  • Given that teachers earn about 20% less than other members of the workforce with similar education and work experience, policies such as career status for teachers are needed to recruit the best and brightest to the profession that has the greatest impact on student achievement.                                                         

Rather than burying this bill amidst a sea of special provisions, the far-reaching educational impact of these suspect policies should be scrutinized by both houses of the General Assembly and the public at large to determine how and if they should be implemented.

The Education & Law Project joined the UNC Center for Civil Rights and other partners in calling on the Department of Education to ensure that proposed Race to the Top District (RTT-D) guidelines for distributing grants prioritize the development and maintenance of high quality, racially and socioeconomically diverse public schools.

The comments point out that the RTT-D guidelines entirely omit consideration of racial and socio-economic diversity in schools, despite overwhelmingly one-sided research outcomes on the topic and previous recognition by the Department of Education itself that integration is a funding priority.

The Department’s RTT-D proposal emphasizes individual-focused education and improving high-needs schools without the necessary parallel of promoting diversity on a school or system-wide level.   This limited approach encourages districts to concentrate students in racially identifiable low-achieving schools and programs to procure funding for remediation.  Instead, the Department should incentivize districts to maintain a system-wide commitment to integration and broad-based student achievement at the district, school, and classroom level.

Additionally, RTT-D contains a requirement excluding districts that serve less than 2,500 students from applying individually for grants , putting many of North Carolina’s highest need rural districts at a significant competitive disadvantage. While these smaller districts can apply jointly as a consortium, the onerous administrative requirement of inter-county coordination could delay or deprive resources from the state’s neediest students.

A recent analysis by the Budget and Tax Center shows that funding for K-12 education has declined by almost 10% over the past 5 years while enrollment has increased by more than 2%.

While the counterintuitive claim that money does not matter in education has become surprisingly common in recent years, the effects of the declining investment in education have already been felt in the place that matters most for our state’s children – the classroom.

One of the few certainties in education policy is that high quality teachers are the key to improving student achievement, and over 90% of spending on K-12 education goes into teacher salaries.  North Carolina’s disinvestment in education has led to teacher layoffs as well as stagnation in teacher’s salaries, which lag well behind the national average.  Without investing in teachers, North Carolina schools will struggle to attract the highest quality teachers to the profession.

Other vital services that directly impact the classroom experience have been cut completely or dramatically reduced in recent years, including funding for textbooks, classroom supplies, teacher mentoring, and professional development.

North Carolina’s population is growing and the need for a highly educated workforce to keep pace with the demand for highly skilled jobs is already upon us.  Now is the time to invest heavily in education as a cornerstone of North Carolina’s long term plan for economic development rather than continue to chip away at the public education system that educates the overwhelming majority of citizens.

A new report from the Brookings Institution finds that socioeconomic integration in housing is linked to improved school performance for low income students.  The study looked at the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country and found that the achievement gap between the lowest and highest income students is significantly smaller in socioeconomically integrated metro areas.  The report concludes that there are compelling reasons to pursue inclusionary zoning policies that avoid the creation of low performing high poverty schools and their consequent denial of educational opportunity to low income students.

The most intriguing finding is that Wake County stood out amongst all of the metro areas surveyed as having a much smaller achievement gap between low and high income students than expected.  After controlling for characteristics such as household income inequality, racial demographics, median income, and the age of the population, Wake County’s test score gap of 14.7 was over 10 percentage points lower than its predicted test score gap of 25.5.  None of the 100 metro areas studied  exceeded expectations by such a large margin.  The only possible explanation of this phenomenon stated in the report is the school district’s history of district-wide socioeconomic integration policies.