News report misstates law on free lunch data and student assignment

An article in this morning’s News and Observer misleads readers on the current state of the law in regard to the use of data from the federal free and reduced lunch program in Wake County’s student assignment plan.  The article’s conclusion that this data cannot be released for the purposes of student assignment for confidentiality reasons is based merely on an e-mail from a program analyst in the Department of Agriculture.

Thankfully, the final decisions on critical legal issues like these are not made by program analysts from the Department of Agriculture.  Both the Department of Education and the Department of Justice have held up Wake County’s old socioeconomic diversity plan as a national model and no federal agency has questioned legality of the use of the data for more than a decade.  Over 70 school districts use socioeconomic data to assign students and none have been successfully challenged legally.

It should be clarified that there is no suggestion that the use of socioeconomic data in student assignment is unconstitutional.  That possibility is foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s previous decisions.  Unlike race, socioeconomic status is not a protected class under the Constitution.  Student assignment plans that consider socioeconomic status do not take race into account and are therefore constitutional.  Thus, even if this e-mail is correct, socioeconomic status may still be used in student assignment by using census data.  However, this is more cumbersome for administrators than using free and reduced lunch status.

The confidentiality question is more complicated and will need to be worked out by the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Agriculture who are clearly not on the same page.  The e-mail in question concerns the use of free and reduced lunch data for individuals as a breach of confidentiality and then extends this logic to the neighborhood level.  However, it is unclear how they reached the conclusion that entire neighborhoods are entitled to confidentiality of aggregate data that is publicly available.  It is also unclear why they are reaching this conclusion at this point in time after the policy was in effect for so many years.  Contrary to the article’s suggestions, an e-mail from a bureaucrat does not answer any of these complex legal questions.


English Language Learners: Educational Solutions for the Fastest Growing Population in North Carolina’s Schools

A recent report by the North Carolina Justice Center shows that, within the current budget structure and using programs that are already in place, more can be done to educate English Language Learners (ELLs) in North Carolina.  ELLs represent the fastest growing and lowest achieving demographic subgroup amongst students in the state.  These students will make up a large portion of our workforce in the future, so it is vital for the prosperity of all North Carolinians that educators and policymakers do more to prepare ELLs for higher education and entrance into the workforce.


Lifting the Charter School Cap: More Charters Require Improved Accountability

In response to the likely lifting of the charter school cap by the incoming North Carolina Legislature, a recent Op-Ed by Tyler Whittenberg of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project lays out the pitfalls of charter expansion and the accountability measures needed to ensure that the schools run properly.  Charter schools have had at best mixed results for students in North Carolina thus far.  Any expansion must be accompanied by well-reasoned policies like these in order to keep charter schools from exacerbating the very problems they purportedly help solve.


Latest Census Data: Black Segregation Drops to Lowest Level in a Century

The newest figures from the Census Bureau show that black residential segregation has decreased since 2000 to the lowest levels in the past one hundred years.  The average white person lives in a neighborhood that is 79 percent white, down from 81 percent in 2000; the average black person lives in a neighborhood that is 46 percent black, down from 49 percent. Hispanic segregation has increased slightly over the same period.  Segregation still persists in many areas and actually increased in 25 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

While the overall decrease is good news in the housing context, it raises some disconcerting questions in the realm of public school integration.  A report from University of California at Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project shows that, during the same period where residential segregation declined, segregation in public schools has accelerated.


Legislative Study Commission Proposes Improving Equity, Transparency of North Carolina’s School Funding System

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA) presented their long-awaited recommendations to improve North Carolina’s school funding system yesterday to the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Public School Funding Formula.  APA is a privately-owned, independent company with extensive experience analyzing public education systems.  They were asked to conduct a non-partisan, comprehensive review of North Carolina’s current system of supporting Local Education Agencies for K-12 education, evaluate North Carolina’s funding structure, describe the strengths and weaknesses of the current funding system, and issue recommendations for improving the funding system.  These recommendations are designed to be revenue neutral, meaning they were not to address the issue of funding adequacy.

APA found that North Carolina’s funding system suffers from a variety of weaknesses that undermine its ability to allocate funds in an efficient and equitable manner.  Specific weaknesses include: 1) the large number of allotments used to distribute state support, 2) the complexity of the allotment formulas and resultant duplication and lack of transparency, 3) a failure to help harder-to-staff schools that often have the greatest need to recruit highly qualified teachers, 4) a failure to relate the distribution of funds to the actual student-based needs of school districts, and 5) a failure to provide incentives to local school districts to provide their own support for public schools.

APA issued a series of recommendations to improve North Carolina’s school funding system.  These recommendations include combining allotments so that they are less numerous and easier to understand, modifying the teacher allotment to recognize the needs of students (including special education, at-risk students, limited-English proficient students, gifted students, and students enrolled in vocational programs) in each district, modifying the statewide teacher salary schedule by accounting for geographic cost differences and the attractiveness of districts to teachers, and moving to a “foundation” formula similar to that used in most other states based on setting a base cost with adjustments for student and district characteristics.  Many of these recommendations mirror those found in a recent Justice Center report on North Carolina public school funding.