Today the U.S. Department of Education announced that North Carolina is among 9 states that won competitive Early Childhood Learning grants through the Race to the Top initiative. North Carolina will receive between $50-$70 million dollars for early childhood programming over the next four years. Because the grant is spread over a 4 year period, the maximum annual amount North Carolina can receive is between $16 and $18 million. This amount of funding is insufficient to meet the $30 million mark identified by Governor Perdue as needed to replace the over 6,000 North Carolina Prekindergarten (NCPK) slots that were lost for the rest of this year as a result of the General Assembly’s budget. Governor Perdue has correctly stated that the legislature still must allocate funds in order to comply with Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning’s recent ruling mandating increased access to NCPK for at risk four year olds. Regardless, the federal funds will provide some welcome respite for an NCPK program that has been working diligently to deal with a disproportionately large 20% loss of funding for FY 2011-12.
A new, wide-ranging study from the Department of Education confirms what advocates for low income students have known for many years: states and school districts are failing to fund high poverty schools. The Department of Education’s report looked at over 13,000 districts across the country, and found that nearly half of all high poverty schools received at least 10% less funding than the average amount of funding for schools in their districts. This is in spite of the fact that high poverty schools are generally much more expensive to operate. Title 1 funds are no longer extra sources of funding for disadvantaged students as was their original intention. In states like North Carolina, they are being used to fill budget gaps instead.
According to the report, the main cause of this funding disparity is the differing levels that teachers are paid in different schools. Many states, including North Carolina, provide funding for a certain number of teaching positions in each school and then pay that number of salaries to each school, regardless of how much the salaries may vary from school to school. High poverty schools tend to have teachers who are less experienced and possess fewer teaching credentials and who are therefore paid less; high wealth schools tend to have the most experienced and highly credentialed teachers who are paid more. Perversely, high poverty schools receive less money for teachers than do high wealth schools.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes one way to address this problem is to close the “comparability loophole” in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which requires that districts give high-poverty schools the same share of state and local dollars as other schools before the district can tap Title I dollars for disadvantaged students. Presently-stalled bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the ESEA, sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin and Russ Cochran, includes language designed to close this loophole.
Critics of Wake County’s former student assignment policy and supporters of the current school board majority may be shocked to learn that the student assignment plan being proposed to replace the socioeconomic diversity policy will have higher transportation costs. This week Wake County Superintendent Anthony Tata stated that the new student assignment plan will feature escalating costs in order to continue busing students to their current schools as well as implementing the new assignment plan. Tata and his transportation staff estimate that Wake will need 15 to 25 new buses to make the proposed assignment plan work. At $87,000 per bus, the new system will cost Wake County between $1.3 and $2.2 million at a time when the state has cut transportation funds by 2.5%. Plus, the transportation staff is expending time and effort coming up with the new routes.
One criticism of the diversity policy that members of the current board majority commonly used in their bid to take over the board in 2009 was that it was inefficient and led to students being bused all over the county at a higher cost. Research from Great Schools in Wake has already shown that the fiscal impact of busing for socioeconomic diversity was minimal as only 3% of busing was done for integration purposes and that the overwhelming majority of students attend school very close to their homes. The main cause of Wake’s transportation costs and complex student assignment system was and remains growth.
It is indeed ironic that the proposed assignment policy would involve higher transportation costs than the nationally-acclaimed integration policy that it replaced because the entire point of the proposed system is that it favors proximity and stability. The socioeconomic diversity policy was successful at avoiding the creation of costly and ineffective high poverty schools that plague other urban school districts. The proposed policy will likely lead to higher concentrations of poverty in some schools that will be far more costly to maintain. One would think that a system favoring stability and proximity at the cost of socioeconomic diversity would at least bring lower transportation costs, but it does the opposite.
Under President Obama’s recently proposed American Jobs Act, states are authorized to use up to 10% of the proposed teacher stabilization grants for State-funded preschool programs. The bill provides up to $30 billion teacher stabilization grants to states, so up to $3 billion could go to teachers in state-funded preschool programs provided they work in low income communities.
These provisions and their inclusion in the American Jobs Act demonstrate the acceptance nationally of prekindergarten programming as one of the most promising ways to improve student achievement, particularly for low income students. If North Carolina continues to swim upstream in the current prekindergarten debacle and cut early childhood programming in the face of a growing body of evidence of its success, we risk losing out on substantial federal funds for this extremely successful educational initiative.
At this week’s State Board of Education meeting the usually mundane topic of transportation was addressed, revealing some serious issues relating to transportation at charter schools. Under North Carolina law, charter schools are exempt from statutes and rules applicable to traditional public schools. The purpose of this law is to allow for innovation and to let charters to circumvent teaching licensing standards. Oddly, this law also exempts charters from the school bus safety regulations that are followed by public schools.
Derek Graham, chief of the Department of Public Instructions Transportation Division, stated that currently only 40 of 98 (41%) of charter schools provide transportation for their students even though they do receive funds for transportation. This causes students who cannot provide for their own transportation to be excluded from these schools and contributes to the higher levels of segregation found in North Carolina charter schools. Mr. Graham was concerned that if charter school buses were held to the same standards as public school buses, the few charters that do provide transportation will stop because most of the buses they use are retired public school buses that no longer make the grade.
However, as Chairman of the State Board of Education William Harrison rightfully pointed out, student safety comes first and there is really no way to get around that. Most of the regulations that have been enacted were in response to accidents and incidents involving buses in the past that nobody wants to see repeated. The Board now faces a no-win situation and must decide whether they should effectively decrease the already minimal level of transportation services at charter schools or push student safety by the wayside.