Could smaller schools mean safer schools? One of the nation’s best teachers believes so

As the North Carolina General Assembly House Select Committee on School Safety meets again on Tuesday, one of the the America’s best public school teachers has several suggestions for improving safety.

Gaston County high school English teacher Bobbie Cavnar believes that smaller schools paired with more nurses and psychologists will enhance the safety of our classrooms.

Cavnar, named by the NEA Foundation as the nation’s top educator, recently discussed school shootings and making students feel safer with NC Policy Watch director Rob Schofield:

At today’s legislative hearing, members of the Student Physical Safety Working Group will hear from the:

  • Executive Director of the North Carolina Christian Schools Association
  • Former Chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Safer Schools Community
  • Development and Training Manager of the Center for Safer Schools
  • Sheriffs of Rockingham County and Carteret County

View the complete agenda here.

And be sure to listen to the full 20-minutes interview with Cavnar below in which he discusses his love of teaching and how he inspires students.

Courts & the Law, Education, News

N.C. Supreme Court weighs who’s to blame for “entrenched inequities” in Halifax County schools

Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan

Before the N.C. Supreme Court Monday, attorneys for both Halifax County and local parents seemed to agree on the lackluster state of school funding in the rural North Carolina county. In question, however, is who’s to blame for the so-called “entrenched inequities.”

The state’s highest court heard oral arguments in the crucial case of Silver et al vs. The Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which spun out of longstanding complaints of funding disparities and crumbling facilities in the eastern North Carolina county.

Those complaints were first heard in the state’s long-running Leandro case, which found the state had a responsibility to provide a “sound, basic education” to all children, regardless of locale.

Yet plaintiffs in the Silver case say the continued operation of three Halifax school districts—two with majority Black enrollment and one with majority white enrollment—exacerbates funding inequalities in the relatively low-income county.  Some—including State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey—have argued the small county would be best served by a single school system, although local officials have been ardently opposed to any mergers.

Parents in the North Carolina county say they want the courts to force a merger of the districts, although lower courts thus far have ruled against them, finding instead that, with the State Board of Education having final say over local district mergers, it’s the state that’s responsible.

But attorneys for the Halifax parents point out the predominantly white district has received millions more in local funding from tax revenues, leading to newer buildings, more supplies, and, ultimately, better academic performance.

Mark Dorosin

“This case concerns what the county commission has failed to do,” said Mark Dorosin, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and an attorney with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.

However, Justice Paul Newby pressed Dorosin to explain the difference between the Silver case and the two Leandro rulings, in which the court ultimately pointed the finger at the state and the General Assembly for funding disparities.

Dorosin argued that, while prior courts found the state has a constitutional obligation to ensure an education for all, local county commissioners too have a responsibility to fund schools fairly.

The state historically funds day-to-day operations in K-12 schools, but local county commissions are charged with funding the construction and maintenance of school facilities.

He said the funding disparities between the segregated school systems yielded failing facilities in the majority Black districts, a factor that attorneys say contributed to the achievement gaps.

“Our education system recognizes that there are shared responsibilities,” Dorosin added.

Attorneys for the county made their arguments that the court rulings in the Leandro case point to the state’s culpability, not the county commissioners.

“If the state of North Carolina was doing what it was supposed to do, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Garris Neil Yarborough, a Fayetteville attorney hired by the county.

The day’s arguments included vigorous questioning from Justice Michael Morgan, who asked what, if anything, county commissioners are responsible for when it comes to local schools.

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Courts & the Law, Education, News

N.C. Supreme Court to hear arguments in pivotal Halifax County school case Monday

Mark Dorosin, attorney for the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights

A potentially precedent-setting legal case challenging Halifax County commissioners over decrepit school facilities will go before the state Supreme Court Monday.

Oral arguments will be heard in Silver, et al v. the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which began in 2015 when parents and community members in the eastern North Carolina county claimed the maintenance of three racially-distinct school systems in the relatively small county created a system of haves and have-nots.

It’s a pivotal court case because it may determine who holds the blame for inequality in the local districts—local boards or the state. Historically, the state funds K-12 operations while local governments are responsible for infrastructure.

Thus far, courts have held that it’s the state that’s responsible for the conditions in some Halifax County schools.

Halifax schools are also at the center of the long-running Leandro court case, which found that the state needed to do more to equalize school funding between wealthy and poor counties.

Mark Dorosin with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights is lead counsel in the Silver case.

A Policy Watch report last year detailed the claims made against county commissioners.

From last year’s report:

Crumbling ceilings. Failing air conditioning and heating systems. Broken down school buses. Mold infestations. Rodents scurrying through the hallways. Students forced to traipse over sewage from flooded toilets. Dismal academic performance year in and year out.

These are just some of the complaints parents are leveling in court against local government leaders in rural Halifax County, home to one of North Carolina’s most chronically under-performing public school districts and a key player in the state’s 23-year-old Leandro case over equity in school funding.

Yet a panel of North Carolina appeals court judges ruled this week that it’s the state government, and not the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, that’s responsible for the “serious problems” in the eastern North Carolina county.

“It’s disappointing,” says Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which represented five Halifax students and their parents or legal guardians in this pivotal case.

It’s a damaging, but perhaps not decisive, setback for Dorosin’s clients, who hoped the courts would force county commissioners in Halifax to reconstruct three small, racially segregated school districts in the county that they blame for fundamental inequities in Halifax school funding.

Reached Tuesday, Brenda Sledge, one of those Halifax parents, said she was “shocked” by the decision.

Their case, Dorosin explains, targets, among other things, the county’s system of collecting and distributing local sales and use taxes, which they say has long favored one district more than others, a district composed of mostly white students.

Additionally, the poor state of some local school facilities—which, in North Carolina, are traditionally funded by local governments and not the state—contributes to a system that deprives some of a “sound basic education,” the legal benchmark set decades ago by the N.C. Supreme Court’s landmark Leandro decision.

Education, News, Trump Administration

Betsy DeVos says Oklahoma teachers should return to their classrooms

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says Oklahoma teachers should return to their classrooms.

According to a Washington Post report Monday, the nation’s top public school official is taking aim at teachers in Oklahoma, who are protesting paltry public education funding.

Educators in several conservative states, including Oklahoma, are clamoring for better pay and better school funding, walking out of classrooms. But DeVos says the protests should not impact classrooms.

From The Washington Post:

“I think about the kids,” DeVos said Thursday, according to The Dallas Morning News. She had been touring a middle school and meeting with leaders of an anti-violence initiative in Dallas. “I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”

Her spokeswoman did not return a request for additional comment.

Tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers converged on the state Capitol last week, demanding more money for the state’s schools, which have endured some of the steepest spending cuts in the nation. While the protest began over teacher pay, educators have shifted their emphasis, pressing lawmakers to invest more in classrooms and saying their walkout is in the name of students who are not getting the resources they need to learn.

Children in many districts — including the state’s two largest — have been out of the classroom for five days, and many schools are expected to remain closed this week as teachers continue their fight. Churches, community organizations and even the Oklahoma City Zoo have stepped up to provide childcare and to make sure children who rely on schools for meals get food.

The revolt in Oklahoma is part of a wave of teacher protests sweeping the country inspired by a successful teacher walkout in West Virginia. There, teachers pressed the state into giving them a 5 percent raise after shutting down schools for nine days. This month, teachers in Kentucky briefly shut some school districts as they protested pension reforms. Teachers in Arizona, where school funding has dropped steeply, are threatening to walk out unless the state restores funding and gives them a raise.

DeVos also weighed in during the West Virginia teacher walkout as it stretched on in February.

“It¹s now day 4 of #WVTeacherStrike. Whether you believe good teachers deserve better pay – I do – and/or states should be fiscally responsible – I do – we should all agree kids should not suffer for adult squabbles,” she wrote on Twitter. “But kids are directly harmed when they are barred from going to school to learn. So I hope both sides in WV come to the table to negotiate a swift resolution and get students back in their schools.”

Adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma spends nearly 30 percent less on schools than it did a decade ago. School buildings are crumbling in many parts of the state, textbooks are outdated and tattered, and about 20 percent of districts have moved to four-day school weeks. Oklahoma teacher salaries ranked 49th in the nation, according to a 2016 report by the National Education Association, a leading teachers union.

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Education, News, Trump Administration

Report: In red, right-to-work states, teachers are rising up

We might have seen this coming, given last year’s report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In that report, researchers laid out how 29 states, including North Carolina, continued to fund their public education systems below pre-recession levels.

Now, with teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia rallying over educator pay, left-leaning ThinkProgress says the states in question have more in common than the fact that they tend to vote for Republicans like President Donald Trump. They’re all so-called “right to work states,” meaning employers cannot require that workers join a labor union or pay dues.

From ThinkProgress, which is a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund:

Whether teachers prefer to call them walkouts, work stoppages, or strikes, all of these states have a number of things in common. Yes, these states all went toDonald Trump in the presidential election — something many journalists and pundits have focused on.

But more importantly, they are also all states with right-to-work laws who have cut public services.

All of these teachers are organizing in similar ways. The strikes’ message goes beyond the teaching profession and extends to better salaries for other state employees and funding for public education as a whole. Teachers also aren’t being entirely led by their unions in the strikes, and they’re working with their school districts, nonprofits, and other state employees to ensure that they have as much public support as possible.

The chronic underfunding of education, sustained tax cuts, and right-to-work laws have created this environment, bringing the fight for education and labor rights to a boiling point in all of these states.

In many of the states where teachers are striking or considering taking action, school funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession.

This chronic underfunding hit the majority of states. A 2017 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report shows that in 2015, 29 states provided less education funding per pupil than in 2008. In 19 states, local funding also decreased from 2008 to 2015. In states where local funding increased during that period, it still didn’t make up for state cuts.

Most of the states now protesting are the ones that experienced the worst cuts. That includes Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers are currently striking. New Jersey, where there was a one-day strike in Jersey City last month, also had their education funding per pupil drop during that time period.

It also includes, Arizona — where we could see teachers take action next. Teachers in Arizona are discussing the possibility of a strike. Although Texas teachers may not strike, they have been unhappy with education funding in the state for a long time and anger is “bubbling beneath the surface,” Louis Malfaro, the head of Texas American Federation of Teachers, told Austin American-Statesman. In Florida, the teachers union has discouraged striking, but some teachers are still interested in a strike.

The cuts to education spending are hurting students’ quality of education and teachers’ quality of life. Oklahoma teachers have posted photos of old books that are falling apart and have panhandled for school supplies. Teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky say they are taking on second jobs and that they have considered leaving their states.

All these strikes are public backlash to years of Republican-led efforts to push for more tax cuts, which has squeezed funding for education.

West Virginia’s tax cuts began more than a decade ago. The states reduced its corporate net income tax and got rid of a corporate charter tax and alternative minimum tax — to name just a few of the cuts — and ultimately lost $425 million in state revenue each year since 2007.

Oklahoma has offered tax breaks to oil companies that diminished revenue from 2008 to 2014, according to WTOP, and led to a 24 percent reduction in per pupil funding over that time period. Twenty percent of Oklahoma school districts are open for only four days a week to cut down on costs. As Kentucky teachers demanded more education funding, state lawmakers considered a proposal that would cut income taxes and result in $114 million less revenue for the state. That legislation — which will result in higher taxes for most residents while corporations and the wealthy pay less — passed the legislature and is heading to the governor’s desk. It’s unclear if Gov. Matt Bevin (R) will sign it.

Oklahoma and West Virginia teachers are some of the lowest paid teachers in the country.

“A lot of our students don’t come to school ready to learn math and to read. They come to school and they’re hungry,” Laura Hartke, a teacher at Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, told ThinkProgress when Kentucky teachers went to the state capital on Monday. “They may have been abused. The programs and things that they want to cut for these children are detrimental to their education. They need more than just a teacher. They need support systems and those are the things that they’re cutting.”

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