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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.

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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.

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Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the next round of the state-level Race to the Top grant competition would target $500 million to states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development.  Both the North Carolina Senate and House have targeted the state’s award-winning early childhood programs, More at Four and Smart Start, for devastating 20% cuts.  The special provisions included in the budget also inexplicably move More at Four out of the Department of Public Instruction and into the Department of Health and Human Services.

It is highly unlikely the Department of Education will reward North Carolina with one of these lucrative grants if the General Assembly eviscerates the very programs the Department of Education is trying to promote.  Aside from the fact that these programs provide essential services and are lauded by business leaders, military leaders, economists, and educators, given the level of proposed cuts to North Carolina’s already underfunded education system legislators simply cannot afford to turn away opportunities for additional education funding.

 

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A recently released report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education concludes that the best way to improve graduation rates is to target low-income students who are currently being underserved by our educational system.  Once a perennial world leader in college completion, the U.S. now ranks 12th out of 36 developed countries in the number of 25-34 year-old adults with some type of college degree.  In a 2009 address to a Joint Session of Congress, President Obama announced his goal for the U.S. to regain this status by 2020.  The report concludes that it is impossible to achieve this goal unless we target federal funding, college access and support services,  and financial aid expenditures toward low-income and underperforming schools.

 

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The accolades for North Carolina’s early childhood programming continue to pile up.  A new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) on the state of preschool in the United States ranks North Carolina as one of just five states with preschool programs that meet all ten of NIEER’s quality benchmarks regarding teacher credentials, class sizes, and other factors believed to influence the classroom experience.  When viewed alongside other independent studies that detail the economic and educational benefits of our early childhood education system, it is truly baffling that the House leadership would propose such devastating cuts to one of North Carolina’s best investments.