UNC professor urges State Board of Education to prepare for “disruptive changes’

GREENSBORO — America is changing.

UNC professor James Johnson (standing} talks demographics during a State Board of Education meeting held in Greensboro on the N.C. A&T University campus.

It’s quickly becoming a nation where the people are older and browner.

These “disruptive demographic” changes, as James Johnson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, calls them, will challenge the country and bring change in ways once unimaginable.

“They’re going to dramatically transform all of our social, economic and political institutions,” Johnson told the State Board of Education (SBE) during its fall planning and work session held on the campus of N.C. A&T University.

Johnson also cited a re-emerging South, interracial marriage, the withdrawal of men from the workforce and the increasing number of grandparents rearing grandchildren as disruptive forces changing the country

His advice to the SBE? Be prepared because the business of education will continue to be dramatically impacted by ongoing demographic shifts.

“The way we manage these issues are going to be the key to our ability to thrive and prosper,” Johnson said.

Perhaps nowhere is the changing demographics of North Carolina felt more intensely than in the state’s 116 school districts.

Chart provided by James Johnson

The dramatic increase in the state’s Hispanic population — it’s grown 1114% between 1990-2016 – has forced districts to make acute adjustments to serve student populations that look a lot different than they did a few decades ago.

By comparison, the state’s black population grew 48 percent during that span and its white population 29 percent. Meanwhile, the population non-Hispanic immigrants grew 586 percent and the state’s Asian population 440 percent.

Johnson said North Carolina is quickly moving from a largely black and white state.

“If you think you have change in your school system now, you haven’t seen anything,” Johnson said. “Buckle your seat belt, because the change is going to become more dramatic.”

As a result of the demographics changes, public schools must rethink the way they deliver instruction and services, Johnson said.

“The kids who walk in the school door moving forward wont’ fit into the nice and neat crucibles we’re accustomed to putting them in, and they won’t allow you to put them into those crucibles,” Johnson said. “This is further transforming the complexion of our society, and what it means is, whose history do we teach? What are the curriculum implications of a more diverse population?”

Johnson’s presentation comes just months after the SBE adopted a new strategic plan that focuses on equity. The SBE has pledged to use the concept as a guiding principle in its decision-making.

The plan has three broad goals: Elimination of opportunity gaps; improving school and district performance and increasing educator preparedness to meet the needs of every student.

SBE member James Ford, who co-chaired the board’s strategic planning committee, said he was introduced to Johnson’s work about four years ago, and found it “stunning.”

“So much of what we talk about when we talk about equity is rooted in systems and structures that go far beyond education,” Ford said via a telephone conference call. “The demographic data and picture that he [Johnson] painted back then [four years ago] has shaped the political discourse and climate for the last three years.”

Ford said Johnson’s work gives us a look at what the state will look like if it doesn’t appropriately respond to the needs of its growing and diverse student population.

“One of the most pressing concerns and questions we have to answer as a state board is, if we fail to respond to and negotiate and interrogate how we’re serving students from diverse backgrounds, what does prosperity in North Carolina look like,” Ford said. “We have an ethical, moral and frankly and economic imperative to respond to the data and changing demographics.”

Like Ford and others attending the board’s planning session, SBE member J.B. Buxton had seen Johnson’s presentation before.

“It never ceases to help you better understand the state,” Buxton said.

He said board can use the information to help guide decision-making when it comes to students.

“This all feeds into our new strategic plan and trying to better understand the challenges of the state and how to best address them,” Buxton said. “It gives us a sense of where the state is going from a demographic perspective and what the challenges are for the kids coming into the school systems.”


Commentary, Education

Editorial: North Carolina’s “frustration” over reading scores a bipartisan problem

Food for thought in Monday’s board editorial from The Charlotte Observer, which noted that the news of lagging reading scores in North Carolina should be, all budget disputes aside, a bipartisan problem.

The news has been bad for some time as it concerns Read to Achieve, a Republican-championed initiative that has, surely for a variety of reasons, failed. It’s an expensive failure too. By January, the state had already spent more than $150 million on the program since 2012.

The board makes the righteous point that now is not the time for any political grandstanding, whether you’re a critic of Sen. Phil Berger’s GOP majority or not.

From The Observer:

It’s a club of people who care deeply about education. It’s a club that possesses both data and theories regarding what might help struggling schools and students, but it’s one that understands there are no certainties — and certainly no silver bullets. It is, above all, a club that knows the reasons students struggle are complex, that we need to try a lot of fixes and fail at some, and that all of it takes money and patience.

None of which is news to Sen. Berger, who is among the shrewdest policy makers in the state legislature. But for years, Berger’s party has largely argued that investing in education initiatives is throwing good money after bad, or that the answer is not money but school “choice” — as if private schools don’t face similar challenges as public. In fact, some education advocates believe that one of the reasons Read to Achieve has failed here is that the supporting education structure around it — including teachers and, importantly, pre-K — have been insufficiently funded by the Republicans Berger leads.

Certainly, many of those education advocates know what it’s like to get disappointing results. NAEP numbers this week also showed that nationally, fourth and eighth grade reading scores essentially have remained flat for a decade. This despite years of reforms across the country that include more precise standardized testing, stricter teacher evaluations and increased attentiveness to third-grade reading scores laws.

The results have frustrated educators across the country, just as North Carolina’s numbers surely have done for Sen. Berger. His response, however, has been at least a little heartening. Instead of using disappointing numbers as an excuse to abandon an education initiative, he worked to improve Read to Achieve, even recruiting Democrat and state school board member J.B. Buxton to help. That reform bill, however, was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, who called Read to Achieve ineffective and costly.

We suspect the governor may have been holding Berger’s signature project hostage in a budget fight, just as Berger and Republicans tried to hold higher teacher pay hostage this week over that same budget. If so, that’s wrong on both counts. Investment in education shouldn’t be subject to political weaponization, regardless of who does it.

We’re encouraged, however, that state school board members are seeing a new willingness from Republican leaders to work on solutions involving struggling schools and North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District, sources tell the editorial board. We believe education progress won’t be found in ideological sniping, but with a realization from both parties that improving schools is often difficult, regularly frustrating and never something we should abandon.

Republicans deserve a heap of criticism for their education policy, which has been sorely underfunded for most of a decade, however much they have spent on early-grade reading.

But now is, indeed, the time for both parties to consider resolutions. Everything should be on the table, including funding for Pre-K, turnaround schools, and overall school spending. Since 2011, and even before the GOP takeover, there has been precious little cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. That, however you choose to spin it, should be an outrage.

What comes next, we can hope, is something new.



Gov. Cooper signs bill forgiving days Ocracoke School students missed due to Hurricane Dorian

The gym at Ocracoke School shortly after Hurricane Dorian.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed into law a bill forgiving  up to 20 days of missed school for Ocracoke School students whose school was forced to close in September due to flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

The law also provides for teachers and other personnel at the school to be paid for days of work missed due to the school closing.

The school and Ocracoke Island were heavily damaged by flooding after Dorian skirted the North Carolina coast in early September.

Ocracoke School was flooded with more than three feet of water. Hyde County School Superintendent Stephen Basnight said the gym floor looked like a pond.

Cooper said his signature on Senate Bill 312 is an important step to getting Ocracoke School back on track.

“The people of Ocracoke are working hard to recover, and we’re committed to getting them and other storm survivors the help they need,” Cooper said.

Students returned to classes in early October. Classes are held in temporary locations while the school undergoes repairs.

Despite the damage to Ocracoke Island, federal emergency officials declined to provide additional help to residents, many of who lost everything in the storm.

Rep. Bobby Haning, a Republican from Dare County whose district includes Ocracoke, sponsored SB 312.

He told area media that passage of the bill would help to relieve some of the financial pressure on teachers and ensure students complete the school year close to the originally scheduled time.

Higher Ed, News

U.S. House Dems advance sweeping effort to lower higher education costs

WASHINGTON — A U.S. House committee passed legislation on Thursday that supporters hailed as a “down payment” on a long-sought liberal goal: free college education for all.

The sweeping measure from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, aims to help more Americans of all backgrounds obtain high-quality college degrees by increasing affordability, accountability and accessibility in higher education.

It would fund states that waive tuition at community colleges and invest in their public colleges and universities, which proponents say would lower costs for students and families. It would also increase federal education grants, crack down on “predatory” for-profit colleges and strengthen supports for low-income students and students of color, among other things.

The bill — an update of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which hasn’t been reauthorized in more than a decade — cleared the House Education and Labor Committee on party lines Thursday morning. The committee’s 28 Democrats all voted in its favor and the committee’s 22 Republicans all voted in opposition.

Rep. Alma Adams

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams voted for the bill; Republican Reps. Virginia Foxx,  Mark Walker and Gregory Murphy voted against it.

Proponents called the legislation an important step toward universal access to an affordable college education, a goal articulated more than a half century ago when President Lyndon Johnson first signed the HEA into law in 1965.

At the time, Johnson said the law meant that “a high school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.”

But that promise remains out of reach for many Americans, said Scott. “We must fulfill the promise of making higher education affordable for all students,” he said at the opening of a committee markup of the bill on Tuesday.

Committee Democrats agreed, voicing strong support during the markup, which stretched over three days this week and involved debate over dozens of amendments on issues ranging from campus child care to student health care to equity in higher education.

The bill will “bring us closer to the vision of a higher education system that provides a ticket to America’s middle and upper class,” said Adams.

Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson said that it will “make a strong statement that everyone deserves access to a quality post-secondary education.”

Republicans, meanwhile, strongly objected to the measure, which carries an estimated price tag of $400 billion over 10 years.

Rep. Virginia Foxx

The “partisan” legislation “throws billions and billions of dollars at a failing system,” said Foxx, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican.

Pennsylvania Rep. Lloyd Smucker, the top Republican on the committee’s Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, echoed the sentiment, saying it “doubles down on failed policies that are hurting students and American taxpayers.”

Virginia’s Cline agreed. “We need to massively overhaul the system, get the federal government out of the way and create more workable options,” he said.

Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg, meanwhile, accused Democrats of trying to “dictate every choice a student can make along the path of their post-secondary education.”

Skyrocketing costs 

The value of a bachelor’s degree is coming under heightened scrutiny, but experts say it is still a good investment for most people, with a high average rate of return. Scott made that point during the markup, calling a high-quality college degree “the surest path to financial security and a rewarding career.”

Yet the cost of the path to a college diploma is climbing, leaving millions of Americans in debt.

Over the last decade, the average annual cost of tuition and fees rose by $930 (in 2018 dollars) at public two-year colleges, $2,670 at public four-year institutions and $7,390 at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, according to a 2018 CollegeBoard report.

Higher sticker prices are due in part to state funding cuts to higher education over the last decade, according to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

Overall, and after adjusting for inflation, state funding for public colleges was $6.6 billion less in 2018 than it was in 2008, before the Great Recession, the report finds. These cuts deter enrollment among low-income students and students of color, undermining efforts to advance equity in higher education, according to the center.

Despite higher tuition costs, participation in the nation’s higher education system is on the rise. Over the last two decades, the percent of U.S. adults with an associate’s degree or higher has risen from 31 percent to 45 percent, according to the American Council on Education.

Scott’s bill — the College Affordability Act — now awaits action by the full House chamber, which is consumed by an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump and pressing legislative matters, including funding the government. It also faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate, where lawmakers are working on higher education bills of their own.

At the outset of the markup, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson predicated that the bill wouldn’t see “the light of day” in the Senate.

Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.


Republican-led General Assembly has approved teacher pay raises. The ball is in Gov. Cooper’s court.

North Carolina teachers marched for better pay last May.

As was expected Thursday, the North Carolina General Assembly approved in a party line vote a 3.9 percent teacher pay-raise that would be distributed over the next two years.

Republicans in the House and Senate voted in the favor of the pay raise while Democrats voted against it, many arguing that the proposed raise is too little.

In the House, the bill passed on a 62-26 vote with Democrats on the losing end. The margin in the Senate was closer. Twenty-eight Republicans voted in favor of the bill and 21 Democrats against.

“I’m not going to say $250 million [additional money for raises beyond what’s in the vetoed budget] is not a substantial investment,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat. “What I will say, it’s not good enough.”

Non-instructional staff such as clerical assistants and custodians would also get a 2% boost in pay under the legislation now headed to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk where it’s expected to receive a chilly reception.

Cooper tweeted earlier Thursday that he believes the proposed raises are insufficient.

“Republican leaders hold teachers hostage. Demand sweeping corporate tax breaks and their entire bad budget in exchange for paltry teacher pay raises that are less than other state employees. Like kidnappers wanting ALL the ransom $$ and still not letting victims go.” Cooper tweeted.

Senate leader Phil Berger quickly responded in a tweet of his own: “This is false. Nobody should accept this as true. The teacher raise bill provides a 3.9% raise no matter what happens with the rest of the budget. Misleading the public is unacceptable. #ncpol

Cooper proposed an 8.5 % teacher pay raise as a budget compromise in July.

Rep. Cynthia Ball, a Democrat from Wake County, touted that compromise during a House budget debate Thursday, contending the governor’s plan would keep North Carolina competitive in the recruitment and retention of quality teachers.

“Competitive, not at the top of the national pay scale but competitive,” Ball said.

But Michael Speciale, a Republican from Craven County, said it’s “nonsense” to argue that the pay raise supported by the GOP is inadequate.

“We’re sitting here at the end of October, going into November because we have a stalemate because people are scared to vote their conscious because we have a governor running roughshod over them and we want to sit here and debate that his bill, which spends $250,000 to give teachers and employees a pay raise is not good enough,” Speciale said.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican and veteran educator, said the stalemate between Democrats and Republicans over teacher pay has had the effect of freezing pay for thousands of North Carolina educators.

“They’ve [teachers] got reality,” Elmore said. “They’ve got to pay bills. They’re expecting money.”

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, has called the Republican pay proposal “wildly insulting to educators.”

Jewell issued this statement Thursday afternoon:

“The miniscule pay increase offered in the educator pay proposal just passed by the General Assembly is an outrageous affront to the professionalism of every educator in our state, be they a teacher, an Education Support Professional, or a retiree. It is incomprehensible that Republican leadership would think educators could be pressured into taking such an inadequate offer, and we stand with the governor in opposition to this legislation.”