Education, News

North Carolina students show modest gains on the latest round of state tests

North Carolina schools posted modest gains on state tests. More schools met or exceeded growth targets and more schools earned A and B performance grades, according to the state’s annual accountability report released Wednesday by the State Board of Education.

The state’s graduation rate was 86.5 percent, which is a slight improvement over last year’s 86.3 percent rate.

“We are making changes in Raleigh to help our students and teachers – with less time spent on testing and more time for instruction, getting money out of Raleigh and into classrooms where it belongs, and a regional support system better tailored to support schools,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said.

The percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level was 56.8 percent for the 2018-19 school year compared to 56.3 percent the previous year.

Meanwhile, 57.2 percent of students in grades 3-8 were proficient in reading. That’s virtually unchanged from the previous year when 57.3 percent of students in grades 3-8 were deemed proficient.

To see school level data, click on these links:

Third grade is a pivotal year for reading because research shows that students who are successful are most likely to graduate from high school.

The number of third-graders proficient in reading is also worth noting because of the large amount of money – more than $150 million — North Carolina has spent on Read to Achieve, the state’s signature education reform initiative created to ensure students demonstrate reading proficiency by third grade.

Critics say the initiative has been a failure.

“Teaching children to read well is a critical goal for their future success, but recent evaluations show that Read to Achieve is ineffective and costly,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a recent statement explaining his decision to veto the legislation aimed at improving Read To Achieve. Read more

Education, News

Torchlight Academy Schools could lose one client, but looks to gain six in new round of charter school applications

The Raleigh-based charter school operator at the center of a management dispute with the Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School (Essie Mae) in Rowan County is listed as the management organization on five new charter school applications received by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction ahead of the Aug, 26 deadline.

Torchlight Academy Schools is also listed as the management firm for New Generation Charter Academy in Edgecombe County. The school is one of five seeking fast-track approval to open next year.

Citing poor fiscal and operational management, Essie Mae officials asked the State Board of Education (SBE) to approve a request to terminate its relationship with Torchlight. The Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) has already approved the split.

The SBE is expected to vote on the request when it meets Thursday for its September business meeting.

Torchlight is listed as the proposed management firm of BEAM Academy in Bladen County, Lighthouse Charter School of the Arts in Greene County, North Davidson Charter Academy in Mecklenburg County, Power Elite Male Academy in Mecklenburg County and RISE Academy, Inc. in Wake County.

Torchlight already manages three charters, including a school in Raleigh that bears its name.

As a result of the Essie Mae request, Don McQueen, president of Torchlight Academy Schools, expects the CSAB to look closely at the applications submitted by the new schools Torchlight would manage.

“They have been reasonable, fair-minded and firm,” McQueen said of CSAB members. “They don’t let much get by them.”

Torchlight could end up managing as many as five of the new 14 schools seeking charter approval from the SBE this cycle.

Here are the other nine new schools seeking charter approval:

  • Carolina Royal, Chatham County.
  • City Charter Academy, Guilford County.
  • Clara Science Academy, Mecklenburg County.
  • Huntersville Charter High School, Mecklenburg County.
  • Oak Grove Charter Academy, Durham County.
  • Peak Academy, Buncombe County.
  • Revolution Academy: Bunker Hill, Guilford County.
  • Teira Institute, Mecklenburg County
  • The Soaring Eagle Academy – TheSEA, Pitt County.

The charter school movement in North Carolina continues to motor along despite complaints from critics who contend they rob traditional public schools of resources and contribute to racial segregation.

There are 198 charters now operating in North Carolina, with 12 scheduled to open in 2020.

The number of charters operating in the state has nearly doubled since lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.

Commentary, Education

Legislature’s budgets (mini or otherwise) fail to approach school needs

The General Assembly’s inability to craft a budget generating the requisite support of the Governor or three-fifths of legislators has spurred a new approach: the “mini-budget.” The General Assembly’s latest plan is to forego a comprehensive budget bill and instead pass a series of piecemeal bills to address some of the state’s most politically sensitive needs, such as pay increases and other technical adjustments.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this strategy – while better than nothing – will once again fail to reverse a decade of neglect in providing our schools the resources necessary to succeed.

North Carolina has never done a good job of adequately funding our schools. In FY 08-09, North Carolina ranked just 43rd in per pupil spending and 43rd in terms of school funding effort (share of state and local school spending as a share of state GDP). That year, North Carolina spent less per student than our neighbors in Virginia and South Carolina, and only slightly outspent schools in Tennessee. It’s no surprise that Education Week gave North Carolina an “F” for our school funding level.

As things currently stand, real per-student state appropriations are 6.7 percent below pre-Recession levels.

This measure, however, underestimates the true resource crunch faced by our public schools. Actual cost increases for enrollment, salary schedule adjustments, and benefits have left resources at least 7.1 percent below pre-Recession levels.

Even this measure undersells district budget pressures, failing to take into account other types of inflation and the additional pressures created by unfettered school choice.

As things stand, 20 of the state’s 26 largest allotments remain below their pre-Recession levels once adjusted for enrollment and inflation, and North Carolina’s school funding effort has dropped to 48th worst in the country. North Carolina’s ranking on the NAEP has fallen relative to other states, with the state’s Black and Latinx students and those from families with low incomes increasingly being denied opportunities to succeed.

No mini budget can fix these maximalist holes. Yet mini budget proposals are all we’ve seen this session.

When it comes to the budget proposals put forward by the Governor and the General Assembly, the major differences are:

  • Teacher pay: The Governor proposed raising teacher salaries by an average of 9.1 percent over the biennium, compared to just 3.9 percent under the General Assembly plan
  • School construction: The Governor offered a $3.9 billion bond, $2 billion of which would go to public schools. The General Assembly’s pay-as-you-go plan would have provided select districts with $454 million in school construction funds over the biennium, along with a “promise” to provide more capital funds in subsequent years.

What the proposals have in common is that they do little to give schools the operating resources necessary to meet the needs of their students. The General Assembly’s budget would have increased funding by $271 million, but only $38 million of that amount would help restore school resources to pre-Recession levels. Out of the $568 million of new money proposed under the Governor’s budget, just $67 million goes towards restoring school resources. While the Governor’s proposal is clearly superior to the General Assembly’s effort, both fall well short of meeting schools’ needs. Restoring allotments to pre-Recession levels would cost $804 million.

In other words, even under the Governor’s plan – which is nearly twice as generous as the General Assembly’s – it would take 12 years to restore district resources close to pre-Recession levels.

Of course, under the General Assembly’s new mini budget plan, resources will never be restored to pre-Recession levels. North Carolina students would never benefit from the same number of teachers, instructional support personnel, assistant principals, teacher assistants, books, or supplies that they got before the Recession when our school funding ranked a lowly 43rd in the country.

All of these budgets – mini or not – reflect a failure to accept the scope to which legislators from both parties have neglected our public schools. In particular, these policymakers have been content with a system that – as the amazing CREED report E(race)ing Inequities documents – has consistently denied opportunity to Black and Latinx students. It’s why the Education & Law Project published the report Effective and Equitable, which provides policymakers with 28 community-informed recommendations that would transform education in North Carolina.

Enacting a transformation that provides opportunity for all students won’t come cheap, but it’s eminently affordable. The 28 recommendations put forth in Effective and Equitable would require about $3.8 billion of new investment. Coincidentally, increasing North Carolina’s school funding effort from 48th to 25th in FY 15-16 (the most recent year for which data is available) would have required additional investment of $3.6 billion. That’s $3.8 billion in today’s dollars. Similarly, returning to North Carolina’s pre-2013 tax code would restore approximately $3.6 billion to state coffers each year.

But to get where we need to go, policymakers need to abandon this pathetic mini-budget strategy and honestly ask themselves what it takes to provide every child with the opportunities they deserve. Then, get down to the hard work of crafting a comprehensive budget that actually addresses our children’s needs.


Istation has agreed to work for free until legal issues over contract are resolved

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Istation, the vendor awarded the state’s $8.3 million K-3 reading diagnostic contract, has agreed to work for free until the legal questions over the award are answered.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced the details of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between his office and Istation on Tuesday.

“The MOA I signed today will facilitate Istation continuing their efforts at no additional costs to taxpayers while also respecting the improper stay irresponsibly put in place by DIT [N.C. Department of Information Technology] lawyers last week,” Johnson said in a statement.

The MOA was adopted in response to a stay issued last week by DIT halting implementation of the controversial reading assessment tool pending its review of the process used to award the contract to Istation.

The stay left school districts uncertain about whether to continue using the program that replaced Amplify’s mClass reading diagnostic tool. Two of the state’s largest school districts – Wake County Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – will stop using Istation until DIT renders a decision on the contract award.

Amplify challenged the contract award to Istation but denied the appeal. The firm then asked DIT to step in to help resolve the complaint.

Ossa Fisher, president and COO of Istation issued this statement about the firm’s decision to work without pay.

“Istation is committed to continuing the important work we began this summer, especially now that the school year has begun,” Fisher said. “While stirring fear, uncertainty, and doubt continues to be the strategy of the losing vendor [Amplify], we will continue to uphold our commitment to North Carolina: helping students across the state develop critical grade level reading skills.”

Maggie Bizell, a spokeswoman for DIT, said the department does not comment on ongoing legal matters.

Meanwhile, Johnson said Istation has already trained thousands of teachers on the new system and onboarded almost 400,000 students. He said thousands of students have already used Istation in their classrooms.

Johnson also continued his attack on the DIT, contending the stay issued by the department “ignored the basic concept of due process” and violated DIT’s rules and processes.

“The only party to this challenge that was heard by DIT was the losing vendor as DPI was not given its proper chance to respond before DIT lawyers put a legally-suspect stay in place.” Johnson said. “While having found plenty of time to respond to the press, DIT has refused to respond to repeated questions from DPI.”

Teachers across North Carolina have been critical of the switch from mClass to Istation.

Many of them have also questioned the process by which the contract was awarded, contending Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

Johnson claims the process was tainted. He said some committee members breached confidentiality on the procurement process and were biased in ways that tilted the evaluation in favor of Amplify.


New school year gets underway without a state budget

The start of the new school got underway Monday without a new state budget.

Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a stalemate over the state’s biennium spending plan, which is hung up mostly over Medicaid expansion.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House K-12 Education Committee, said starting the school year without a budget is problematic for the state’s 116 school districts.

“This is a terrible situation for education, to not have a budget,” Horn said. “Not only do we have school supplies issues, we have a large number of after school programs and school support programs that are funded with non-recurring money and we have no non-recurring money without an active budget.”

Until a budget is approved, the state will continue to operate at last year’s spending levels.

Horn said educators haven’t begun to complain yet about the lack of money for after school programs or school supplies.

“They’re just now starting school,” Horn said. “I suspect we will start hearing from them and I hope they scream loud and clear. This state needs an enacted budget. It is critical for school supplies, it’s critical for after school programs, it’s critical for professional development and training.”

The budget impasse could go on for a while. State Democrats and Republicans have dug in on the Medicaid expansion issue, and neither side appears willing to bend.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the Republican’s $24 billion budget. Cooper has said he won’t approve a new budget until GOP leaders agree to expand Medicaid.

Republicans aren’t budging, either. They are expected to begin approving parts of the budget this week, such as proposed pay raises for state employees, through a piece-meal approach that would force Cooper to use his veto power.

That wouldn’t get Republicans leaders the budget they want, but it could potentially score political points for the GOP because Cooper would be seen as standing in the way of worker pay raises.

To break the budget stalemate, Horn said he’s willing to move closer to Cooper’s proposed teacher pay raise.

He believes the Republican leadership would also bend some on teacher pay raises to get a budget approved.

“Let’s do it,” Horn said. “I’d be happy to move closer to the governor’s [Cooper] position on teacher pay. “That’s an existing thing and if that gets the budget signed, let’s do it, and I would suggest that my colleagues would say, OK, let’s do it.”

When asked if Cooper would consider such an offer, Ford Porter, the governor’s spokesman, said the GOP needs to make an offer.

“I think we would need to see the proposal,” Porter said. “Everything is on the table.”

Under Cooper’s compromise spending plan, teacher pay would increase by an average of 8.5 percent over the biennium. The GOP’s conference committee plan calls for an average teacher pay raise of 3.8 percent and a one-time bonus.

For a couple of weeks in April, the big budget story involved proposals to help teachers buy classroom supplies.

Cooper’s budget and the conference budget approved by Republican lawmakers include $30 million over the biennium to help teachers purchase classroom supplies.

“The money has been appropriated,” Horn said. “It’s there and all ready to go but the governor [Cooper] won’t let it go.”

The budget battle will undoubtedly slow school construction in North Carolina.

The GOP and Democrats are at odds over how to pay for school construction projects. Republicans favor a pay-as-you-go scheme and Cooper a compromise option that would include money from a statewide bond referendum and a version of the GOP’s pay-as-you-go proposal.

The governor originally supported a $3.9 billion bond referendum.

The one thing that’s certain is the longer it takes for lawmakers to resolve the budget impasse, the longer it will take to get money in the hands of school districts to pay for what Democrats Republicans agree are much-needed construction and renovation projects.