Education, News

N.C. State researcher hints at controversial voucher study to come

Friday Institute Director of Policy Research Trip Stallings

A pending study of academic outcomes in North Carolina’s controversial private school voucher program isn’t likely to be “non-controversial,” a leading N.C. State researcher said Monday.

Trip Stallings, director of policy research for N.C. State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, said researchers hope to release results from the K-12 study in the coming months.

Testing data will roll in over the next few weeks, although vetting the results will take months, he expects.

When released, it’ll be one of a precious few independent studies of the polarizing state program, which offers public dollars for low-income students to attend private schools.

However, like researchers before him, Stallings acknowledged the difficulty of assessing the Opportunity Scholarship Program. That’s largely because state law does not require one assessment for voucher recipients, making “apples-to-apples” comparisons between voucher students and comparable students in traditional public schools vexing.

Indeed, a Duke University report last year bemoaned the difficulty in gauging the program’s performance, calling the state’s accountability regulations “among the weakest in the country.”

N.C. State’s study seeks an “unbiased” analysis of the voucher program, although Stallings pointed out that the research relies on volunteers from private and public schools in order to make comparisons, potentially skewing the data.

The state needs incentives for students to participate in such data collection, he said.

Stallings’ comments came Monday at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, a conservative group that supports the school choice movement.

Conservative state lawmakers launched the voucher initiative in 2014, citing a need to create school choice options for the state’s poorest students, many of whom tend to lag their peers academically.

But critics have long disparaged the program for a paucity of available data and its speedy roll-out. Legislators plan to increase voucher funding by $10 million annually through 2027, spending a projected $900 million or so over the decade.

Since 2014, participation in the state program has risen from more than 1,200 students in 2014-2015 to more than 5,400 in 2016-2017.

Similar school choice initiatives have been unveiled in other Republican-controlled states. On Monday, Stallings compared North Carolina’s program to states such as Florida, Indiana and Louisiana, pointing out that while the state’s maximum voucher value of $4,200 trails other states, about 60 percent of the state’s private schools participate.

As Policy Watch has reported, the majority of private schools accepting vouchers are religious in nature, and some have been accused of maintaining anti-LGBTQ policies.

Still, Stallings said the state counts recipients in 97 of 100 counties, although the highest concentration tends to be in places like Charlotte, Wake County and Fayetteville.

N.C. State researchers say the study’s next step will be to publish an analysis of correlative data trends in the coming trends, although they cautioned the report will not be able to identify “causal” relationships. In layman’s terms, that means the study may note corresponding relationships in the data, but it may not be enough to point to the voucher program as a cause for any finding.

Education, News

Sen. Chad Barefoot to talk class size crisis on “Education Matters” this weekend

Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Franklin, Wake

A bit of news for those following North Carolina’s class size drama: One of the state Senate’s top budget negotiators is expected to perhaps shed some light this weekend on when or if lawmakers will propose some resolution.

The Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan research and policy group in Raleigh, says their “Education Matters” program on WRAL will feature Sen. Chad Barefoot, the Wake County Republican who co-chairs the Senate’s education committee.

The Forum says they intend to ask Barefoot about the funding turmoil. House leaders have been noticeably more eager to adopt some relief for school systems than Senate legislators thus far.

As you may recall, Barefoot was one of the major players involved in last year’s temporary class size resolution, a crisis with the potential to cost local districts thousands of jobs for arts, music and P.E. teachers.

Policy Watch reported this week that at least one key Republican assured constituents in recent days that he expects the Senate to act in March. Meanwhile, a top House budget writer has also promised relief is coming. 

The trouble began in 2016 when GOP legislators ordered school districts to cut class sizes in the lower grades. But districts warned of myriad complications should the order go into effect at the beginning of the 2018-2019 fiscal year with no additional funding or flexibility from the state.

With school districts already prepping plans for next year’s budget, the timing of the legislature’s action, or inaction, will be key.

Depending on your location, “Education Matters” can be viewed this weekend on WRAL, Fox 50 or UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel.

Keep following for more updates.

Education, News

Report: Racial gaps in school suspensions persist

One of North Carolina’s most troubling K-12 disparities endures, according to a new report cited Monday by The News & Observer.

The report, issued by a project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, details persistent gaps between suspension rates for black and white students across the state’s 115 school districts.

Policy Watch has reported on the scope of this issue in the past, and, despite evidence that the state’s K-12 system is reducing the number of suspensions, the gaps in student suspensions remain.

From The N&O report:

Black students are more likely to be suspended than their white classmates, according to the report cards.

During the 2015-16 school year, black students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system were 10 times more likely to be suspended than white students, 8.7 times more likely in Durham and 7.8 times more likely in Wake County.

“The Racial Equity Report Cards are intended to be a launching point for community education and discussion,” Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project, said in a written statement released Friday. “They are not meant as an attack on the critically important public institutions that serve our youth, but rather, as a call-to-action for students, parents, advocates, policymakers, and institutional stakeholders to collectively examine the causes of racial inequity in their community and develop solutions that will help young people, especially youth of color, avoid and escape the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The coalition says disparities such as those seen in suspension rates mean more children of color are funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, a system of policies and practices that pushes students out of school and into the juvenile and adult criminal systems.

Education, News

Robeson County to transfer school to state’s controversial Innovative School District

Robeson school board Chair Peggy Wilkins-Chavis

In the end, the decision came down, at least partly, to pragmatism, says Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chair of the Robeson County Board of Education.

Wilkins-Chavis’ board voted unanimously Tuesday to transfer control of a struggling elementary to North Carolina’s Innovative School District (ISD). It’s a hotly-contested new state initiative expected to cede operation of Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Rowland to a private charter or education management organization, including, potentially, a for-profit company.

The only option remaining to Robeson leaders under state law was closure, a route that nonetheless earned close scrutiny in late 2017.  But Wilkins-Chavis said the district would have been forced to displace more than 250 students, teachers, counselors and administrators across the district, potentially burdening other local schools that were lagging academically too.

“There were so many negative things,” she said. “And we don’t need to hurt schools that are struggling anyway.”

Southside-Ashpole Elementary will be the first North Carolina school to join the new program. The Rowland school was the final school standing after state officials last year narrowed down a list of 48 possible schools, eligible because of dismal test scores. Most, like Robeson County, served a low-income population, a group that tends to trail their peers in the classroom.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall is expected to recommend several more schools after a new round of testing data later this year.

Wilkins-Chavis expressed deep skepticism for the takeover program last year, although she said this week that she’s viewing the reform as a “new beginning” for Southside-Ashpole.

“If we can’t do it and Robeson County has failed and this company can come in and bring those test scores up, I’m 100 percent for it,” she said. “Because that’s our children of tomorrow. We need to have them on grade level.”

Hall is working with a consultant, Massachusetts-based School Works, to make a recommendation on the school’s new operator in February. Just two organizations—one a new Charlotte nonprofit and the other a Michigan for-profit, charter operator—submitted completed applications for the program, much to the chagrin of some members on the State Board of Education. More to come on that tomorrow from Policy Watch.

On Wednesday, Hall applauded Robeson school board members for their decision this week.

“Together we’re learning this new body of work,” he said. “It’s definitely been a journey and I’m very grateful to the board for taking that step.”

Education, News

Senate Democrat to file fix to North Carolina class size crisis

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake

A Wake County Democrat will take the first crack at fixing North Carolina’s class size crisis this year.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a member of the state Senate’s education committee, confirmed to Policy Watch that he will file legislation intended to offer local school districts flexibility over how they distribute students in grades K-3.

“The dispute about class room sizes is not a partisan issue,” said Chaudhuri.  “It’s an issue caught in the middle of a dispute between the House and the Senate.  Unfortunately, it’s our children who have been caught in the middle.  And, it needs to stop now.  That’s why we need to pass this bill now.”

Chaudhuri said his bill will be similar to the original version of House Bill 13, filed last year by several House Republicans. The original legislation allowed for school districts to exceed the maximum class size average and individual class sizes mandated by the state.

The proposal arrives with pressure mounting on state lawmakers to address a 2016 legislative order that school systems trim class sizes in the early grades. General Assembly Republicans behind the mandate say they want to improve the quality of instruction in K-3, but school district leaders say the directive will wreak havoc in systems across North Carolina.

Critics say lawmakers must approve additional funding for classroom teachers or offer greater flexibility. Otherwise, they say districts may be forced to nix Pre-K programs, move students into mobile classroom units and lay off thousands of arts, music and physical education teachers to make room for more “core” subject teachers.

However, Democrats have had little success in moving their bills in the GOP-dominated General Assembly in recent years.

An estimated 200 or so protesters rallied for legislative action Saturday in Raleigh, blaming GOP lawmakers for the K-12 headaches.

“The fact that legislators claim that they didn’t intend the consequences of their class size law, but have still refused at every turn to fix this issue, is inexcusable,” said Renee Sekel, one of the organizers of Saturday’s grassroots protest.  “It is wrong for parents to have to beg for their children not to lose critical educational opportunities, while hard-working, committed teachers face losing their jobs, because the General Assembly is careless.”

So far, House Republicans have been more receptive to a class size compromise than their Senate colleagues. Indeed, Rep. Craig Horn, an influential Union County Republican who co-chairs the House education committee, told Policy Watch last week that he believes the legislature will offer a “reasonable solution” in the coming weeks.