Commentary, Education

NC Policy Watch welcomes new education reporter

In case you missed it, a new byline is starting to crop up on the NC Policy Watch websites. It gives me great pleasure to announce that veteran journalist Greg Childress recently joined our team as the PW education reporter.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. Greg comes to Policy Watch after nearly 30 years at The Herald-Sun of Durham, where he spent his last five years covering the Durham Public Schools, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools. Greg also covered city and county governments in Durham and Orange counties, higher education and spent 10 years as an associate editorial page editor.

At Policy Watch, Greg will put his long list of contacts and three decades of  journalism experience to work doing what his predecessors in the position — Lindsay Wagner and Billy Ball — have been doing for the last several years: chronicling the ongoing policy battles over the future of public education and breaking important stories that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. We’re thrilled to have Greg on board and urge advocates, teachers, administrators, parents, students and elected officials to follow his stories and reach out to him. You can contact Greg at greg@ncpolicywatch.com or 919-861-2066 and follow him on Twitter at gchild6645.

Education

State Board of Ed panel spreads cheer with Florence recovery aid, but seeks accountability

Christmas came a little early for several schools in Brunswick, Columbus and New Hanover counties by way of FAST NC grants designed to help school districts in 28 counties impacted by Hurricane Florence.

A State Board of Education (SBE) panel on Thursday, just five days before Santa’s scheduled arrival, approved modest grants totaling nearly $31,000 schools in those counties can use to replace instructional rugs, P.E. equipment, books and other such items damaged or lost during Hurricane Florence and the flooding that followed.

FAST NC, which stands for “Florence Aid to Students and Teachers of North Carolina” was created in the aftermath of the hurricane and is led by a bipartisan group of current and former North Carolina education leaders.

Protesters gathered in Raleigh earlier this year to demand action from state lawmakers to provide for a just hurricane recovery effort.

But even Santa has accountability standards in these matters. A request from Duplin County Schools for more than $46,000 to replace dozens of “missing or destroyed” iPads, sound bars, power supplies and other such items was placed on hold until the panel receives clarity about how the items came to be missing.

The school district’s needs totaled more than $51,000. The state’s insurance provider will pay $5,000 to cover the losses.

State School Board member Olivia Oxendine told her colleagues that she’ll have trouble supporting the award if the losses are due to theft.

“This one raises concerns for me,” Oxendine said during a teleconference Thursday.
In addition to Oxendine, the four-member panel included SBE Chairman Eric Davis, SBE Vice Chairman Alan Duncan and board members Olivia Holmes Oxendine and Amy White.

The awards are based on recommendations from the FAST NC steering committee that includes Davis, State Superintendent Mark Johnson, former state superintendents June Atkinson and Mike Ward, former State Board of Education Chairman Phil Kirk and Henry Johnson, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and former Mississippi State Superintendent.

The awards were the third-round of FAST-NC grants approved by the committee. A fourth round of awards is scheduled for early next year.
Of the $31,000 the committee approved on Thursday, about half will go to help 90 teachers In New Hanover County displaced by the storm. However, the committee’s approval didn’t come until after a robust discussion about the appropriateness of awarding FAST-NC money to individuals.

In its request, New Hanover Schools said the money would “directly benefit” employees “directly impacted by Hurricane Florence.”
In the end, committee members agreed to award the grant but to also send the school district a reminder that FAST-NC money is intended to support classroom instruction and not the individual needs of teachers.

Ward, who sits on the FAST-NC steering committee, noted that Pender County was given the flexibility to award teachers and teaching assistants individual grant amounts to replace lost instructional materials they’d purchased with their own money.

The panel agreed to use that example to provide guidance to district officials in New Hanover County on the distribution and use of FAST-NC grants.

Deanna Townsend-Smith, the SBE director of operations and policy, said $78,000 has been raised for FAST NC through the NC Education Fund, which had roughly $340,000 when the fundraising effort began.

Stay tuned to see how the Duplin County Schools’ request plays out

Commentary, Education

Charlotte teacher pens open letter to Betsy DeVos on guns

Charlotte schoolteacher and education advocate Justin Parmenter has published a new open letter to U. S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about gun violence and DeVos’s latest wacky proposal to arm school personnel.

Dear Secretary DeVos,

Last month my 7th grade students and I huddled on the floor of my classroom during yet another lockdown. As the minutes ticked slowly past, I made eye contact with each student, one by one. I could see on their faces the absolute trust that I would guide them through whatever challenges we faced.

In the wake of the horrific gun deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last Valentine’s Day, the White House convened a school safety commission with you at the helm.  The Federal Commission on School Safety’s task was a really important one:  to find ways to keep us safer in our schools.

While your commission deliberated, the public did too.  Here’s what we came up with:

  • Teachers said they don’t want to carry guns.
  • Parents said they don’t want teachers to carry guns.
  • Teens said they don’t want teachers to carry guns.

Notice a trend?

We did have some alternative suggestions, which we offered at every possible opportunity.  We asked for stricter firearms laws, including raising the age limit for gun purchases.  We wanted access to the assault weapons so frequently used in our nation’s mass shootings to be restricted.  We wanted increased resources for the chronically underfunded mental health supports that our students need to be socially and emotionally healthy.

This week your commission released its final report.

Among other things, your recommendation is that school systems consider training and arming personnel, including teachers, as ‘an effective tool in stopping acts of school violence.’   Read more

Education, News

After backlash, North Carolina lawmakers give a reprieve to school targeted for takeover

After a swift backlash, North Carolina legislators approved a handful of changes to state law Thursday that would offer a reprieve to one struggling Wayne County elementary targeted for takeover by the Innovative School District.

The changes emerged from a conference report on a technical corrections bill approved Thursday by House and Senate lawmakers.

The bill is bound for Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, and it’s unclear whether or not the Democratic governor will sign off, given its inclusion of a controversial allowance for municipal charter schools — like those in the works in the Charlotte suburbs — to opt into the state’s retirement and health system.

Such an allowance clears a major hurdle for the prospective schools, which critics say will exacerbate segregation in Charlotte-area schools, already one of the state’s more divided districts.

Even if Cooper vetoes the bill, Republican lawmakers still hold a veto-proof majority, at least until the newly-elected members of the General Assembly take office in January.

This week’s revision to the Innovative School District law would appear to head off a confrontation with Wayne County school leaders, one of which would not rule out a lawsuit in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

Local district leaders blasted state officials’ process in selecting the school, Carver Heights Elementary, which would now be allowed to follow through on its application to join the state’s “Restart” program. Under the program, struggling schools can be cleared for charter-like flexibility.

This week’s bill also nixes a requirement that the ISD take over at least two schools by the 2019-2020 school year, potentially setting up an even busier Fall 2019 for the program. Under state law, the initiative would have to take over another four schools going into 2020-2021.

State leaders approved the program’s takeover of a Robeson County school last year.

Wayne County school leaders applauded the news Friday.

“The positive support from State Board of Education members and State legislators about Wayne County Public Schools improvement efforts currently underway at Carver Heights Elementary has been absolutely tremendous,” Wayne County Superintendent Michael Dunsmore said in a statement.

“We are extremely pleased with this legislation that is now on its way to the Governor’s Office. Our school district is highly appreciative of our local legislative delegation and the bi-partisan support that led to the passing of this legislation in both the House and Senate. Their actions speak volumes, and further affirm our district’s ability to change the academic trajectory of this school.”

The ISD was created by state lawmakers in 2016, potentially allowing charter operators to pilot operations in lagging traditional schools.

Education, News

After years of warnings about K-12 infrastructure, Speaker Moore to file $1.9 billion school bond bill

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

North Carolina lawmakers were told nearly three years ago that the state’s school infrastructure needs had reached a staggering $8 billion or more.

Yet efforts to put a statewide school bond referendum on the ballot were stymied by North Carolina lawmakers in recent years.

Today’s news might mean, however, that the proposal may finally have some momentum in the legislature.

State House Speaker Tim Moore announced that he would file a bill to put a $1.9 billion public school bond on the ballot, addressing at least a portion of the state’s capital needs.

According to Moore’s release, $1.3 billion would go to K-12 construction needs, $300 million to the UNC system, and $300 million to North Carolina’s community colleges.

“Education is what matters most to families and businesses — to the private and public sectors alike — and North Carolina is poised to build on historic commitments to our schools with another long-term investment in capital construction for our rapidly growing student population,” Moore said in the release.

“Our state’s explosive growth over the past decade brings opportunities and challenges for our school systems. The state General Assembly must continue to meet those needs with investments in our future.”

It’s worth mentioning that while Moore refers to “another” investment in our student population, this would mark the first statewide K-12 bond since 1996.

Lawmakers did authorize and voters approved a $2 billion bond in 2016 to fund STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) facilities on UNC campuses, but the state’s K-12 schools have long bemoaned the state of crumbling facilities in some of North Carolina’s poorer regions.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson also announced his support for the bond in Moore’s release Thursday, which came hours after GOP lawmakers choose Moore for his third term as state House speaker.

State officials told legislators nearly three years ago that the school construction tab was expected to balloon to $13 billion by 2026, and that’s before a controversial elementary class size cap may have exacerbated the problem for local districts.

No word yet on whether the bill has backing in the state Senate, which has been considerably more problematic for public school advocates in recent years.

Moore said in his release that the bill should be approved in the 2019 legislative session and be placed on the ballot in 2020.