Education

Senate bill would put the brakes on charter school expansion

State Sen. Dan Blue, (D-Wake), discusses Senate Bill 247 during a press conference on Wednesday.

After 25 years in the charter school business, North Carolina needs a “recess” from granting new charters while a proposed legislative committee studies their impact on traditional public schools, Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue said on Wednesday.

Describing himself as a strong supporter of charter schools, Blue said lawmakers must begin to hold charters accountable for how they spend public dollars.

Blue noted that state spending on charters grew from $16.5 million in 1997 to more than $580 million last year.

“When the legislature is directing that level of increased spending, it is our responsibility, first as legislators, but I think as protectors of the public purse, to make sure that those dollars are being spent wisely.”

Blue’s remarks came during a news conference Wednesday to discuss Senate Bill 247, which would prohibit the State Board of Education from granting final approval of any charter applications once the bill is approved.

SB 247 would also establish a 10-member Joint Legislative Study Committee to study the impact of charter schools on traditional public schools and student academic performance.

The SBE would presumably resume granting charters after the new committee issued its report and recommendations. Current charters in the pipeline would not be affected.

The bill’s primary sponsors are Blue and Senators Jay J. Chaudhuri (D-Wake) and Mujtaba Mohammed, (D-Mecklenburg).

Blue said state dollars available for education spending are at a premium due to Republican tax cuts that cost North Carolina $3.5 billion annually.

“So, now we have more schools vying for these resources and it’s our responsibility to make sure that every single public dollar that we spend, whether in education or elsewhere, is spent wisely,” Blue said. “Taxpayers expect it and students deserve it.”

Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools, said SB 247 makes several false assumptions.

She said charters already provide a “full accounting” of the state dollars they receive.

“These audits are conducted by an independent auditor approved by the Local Governance Commission and the findings must be published on the school’s website,” Dillingham said. “Schools that are considered non-compliant in any area are subject to potential closure.”

Dillingham said charter’s test scores are also readily available like those of traditional public schools.

She said SB 247 would deny families educational opportunities.

“There are over 50,000 students’ names on [charter school] waiting lists across the state,” Dillingham said. “These families are seeking an alternative to the public school assigned to them by their zip code.”

Christine Kushner, a member of the Wake County Board of Education, said her district passed through nearly $36 million year to area charters last year.

“That figure has been escalating,” Kushner said. “Last year’s increase alone was $5 million and there is no clear oversight for the spending of those local funds. That’s why I think we need a pause on charter school expansion so we can improve the oversight for these taxpayer dollars.”

When families enroll their children in charter schools, educational dollars follow them. They are passed to charters through local school districts.

Natalie Beyer, a member of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, said Durham County had the foresight to merge its predominately white county schools and majority black city schools in the 1990s.

“Sadly, North Carolina’s charter school legislation is recreating a new separate and unequal system in our community,” Beyer said.

Since the cap on charters was removed in 2011, the number of charters in Durham has grown to 14, including two virtual charter schools.

Beyer said the increase in charters has reduced the level of services Durham Public Schools can provide students.

“As a taxpayer, I’m concerned about the rapid expansion of charter schools across our state,” Beyer said.

The number of charters across North Carolina exploded to 184 after lawmakers lifted the cap. And over a 10 year span, enrollment increased by 200 percent.

In 2017-2018, charter school enrollment accounted for 6.6 percent – 100,986 — of the state’s 1.43 million students

This year, the number of students enrolled in charters climbed to 109,389, which is about 7.3 percent of the state’s 1.5 million students.

Of the $8.93 billion in state funding for public education, 6.5 percent — $580 million — was allotted to charter schools.

School districts in rural parts of the state have been particularly hard hit by the growth in charters.

In Granville County, for example, the school district was forced to close and consolidate schools after losing hundreds of students to area charter schools.

If SB 247 is approved, the new legislative study committee would exam and make recommendations on the following items:

  • The history of charter schools in North Carolina, including the original intention behind their authorization.
  • The impact of charter schools on local school administrative units and the benefits and harms of expanding charter schools.
  • Innovative ideas for improving local school administrative units.
  • Proposed transparency and accountability standards for charter schools, including, but not limited to, public audit procedures, compliance with open meetings laws, accessibility to meetings and minutes from the meetings of the boards of directors of charter schools.
  • Metrics used to measure academic success of students in charter schools and processes used to admit and reject students’ applications to charter schools.
  • Charter school student and teacher attrition rates and the impact of charter school student and teacher attrition on local school administrative units.
  • The extent to which charter schools are able to provide a sound basic education to their students and inhibit the ability of local school administrative units to provide a sound basic education to their students.
  • The State’s system of funding charter schools and a complete financial analysis of how State and local funds allocated to charter schools impact funds made available to local school administrative units.
  • The impact of the termination of a charter school’s charter on students.
  • The extent to which charter schools serve children with disabilities and students with other special needs.
  • The academic performance of all charter school students, as compared to students in local school administrative units, including children with disabilities.
  • The extent to which charter schools have an impact on segregation and racial isolation in local school administrative units and charter schools.
  • The extent to which charter schools employ best practices in teaching and administration.
  • Suspension and expulsion rates in charter schools as compared to local school administrative units.
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

Test scores in North Carolina public schools decline

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

This time of year is always a nervous one for North Carolina public school leaders.

With state testing results going public, K-12 officials will talk about their successes and their struggles. This week may focus on the struggles, though, with new testing results showing declines on state exams.

From The News & Observer:

Fewer North Carolina public school students passed state exams this year, with the decline increasing over time for students in third grade despite a state push to get young children reading at grade level.

New state results from the 2017-18 school year released Wednesday also show that the state’s 12-year streak of rising high school graduation rates has ended. But state leaders say the graduation results can’t be compared to previous years because of changes in how the rates are now calculated.

State education leaders pointed to positives Wednesday about how the majority of schools are meeting growth expectations on state exams and that the number of low-performing schools has dropped.

But the new test results also showed several areas of decline.

“We have some things to celebrate,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said at a news conference Wednesday. “We also have things that will make us pause and have concerns.”

Go to https://bit.ly/2wGEwP6 for a Charlotte Observer/News & Observer searchable database of results for every North Carolina public school. Results are also available at http://www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting/ on the state’s website.

One example of a decline is how the percentage of students passing the state reading, math and science exams dropped to 58.8 percent in the 2017-18 school year. It was 59.2 percent the previous school year.

Even when the drop is small, Johnson said it still reflects that a lot of students declined. He said state test results seem to be plateauing.

“When we dig into the data, we see that some results go up, some results go down,” Johnson said. “But consistently the trend is that we are not where we want to be for students.”

An area where the scores seem to be going in reverse is performance of third-grade students on the state’s end-of-grade reading exam. State legislators created the Read To Achieve program in 2012 with the goal of trying to get students proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

The passing rate on the third-grade reading exams is now at 55.9 percent. It was at 60.2 percent in the 2013-14 school year and 57.8 percent in the 2016-17 school year.

Johnson said he hopes that efforts he’s pushed for such as reallocating state Read To Achieve funding to buy supplies and iPads for K-3 literacy teachers and reducing the amount of required assessments will improve performance.

It’s worth debating whether devices alone will make a difference. Recent research suggests the jury’s still out. 

Johnson’s iPad purchase has also been mired in controversy. As Policy Watch reported last week, the purchase came months after the superintendent and influential state budget leaders had their expenses, including dinner and lodging, paid for by Apple reps at their Silicon Valley headquarters.

Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Cooper appoints unopposed Robeson judicial candidate to fill District Court vacancy

Brooke Locklear Clark

Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Brooke Locklear Clark to fill a judicial vacancy in Robeson County District Court.

Clark, who has practiced law in that area for more than 13 years, will serve the remainder of Chief District Court Judge J. Stanley Carmical, who was recently appointed to serve as a special Superior Court judge.

“Clark’s experience in the law and deep knowledge of her community make her an ideal choice to serve on the District Court bench in Robeson County,” Cooper said in a news release.

Governor Roy Cooper has appointed Brooke Locklear Clark to preside in Robeson County District Court.

Clark’s prior service includes serving as the attorney for the county Department of Social Services. She is a Family Drug Treatment Court team member and a former parent attorney for this innovative program that helps families dealing with substance abuse.

She is a native of Robeson County and serves on the advisory committee for the local superintendent of schools and is a member of the board of the Friends of the Robeson County Public Library.

The Robesonian wrote an article about her appointment, in which she said was appreciative of the opportunity to impact so many lives.

“In my work with Family Treatment Court and with DSS Court and a lot of the other courts, I’ve seen some powerful things happen and that’s where my heart is, in trying to help families and help these people,” she told the newspaper. “Even in criminal court, we see people coming through who have problems, who have substance abuse issues. To be able to make a difference, that’s my passion, that’s what I want to do.”

Clark is also an unopposed candidate for the seat she was appointed in the midterm election in November. She will be sworn in Wednesday to fill the remainder of this term, which ends Dec. 31, and if she wins the election, will continue to serve.

The Robesonian reports that there are two additional judicial seats up for election in that area — one held Judge Dale Deese, who filed for reelection but was challenged by Robeson County Assistant District Attorney Angelica Chavis McIntyre, and another held by Judge Herbert Richardson, who is retiring. Assistant District Attorney Vanessa Burton and Robeson County Assistant Public Defender Jack Moody Jr. filed as candidates for that seat, according to the newspaper.

Commentary

Schoolteacher, DPI insider blast Superintendent Mark Johnson’s destructive layoffs

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Forsyth County public school teacher Stu Egan has a fine new entry on his Caffeinated Rage blog about state schools superintendent Mark Johnson’s latest purge at the Department of Public Instruction. In “The State Superintendent Meets With Privatizers on Monday, Then 40 People Were Laid Off at DPI on Friday,” Egan points out that the firings (and the elimination of 21 other positions) were both especially treacherous for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is that they targeted staffers dedicated to helping low performing schools.

Egan’s post is definitely worth your time — as is the comment that appeared on Egan’s site (and that appears below — with paragraph breaks added for clarity) from an anonymous DPI insider:

Thanks for your article. It is worse than you know. I lost many colleagues and friends on Friday, folks who served the State of North Carolina well and did a good job for DPI and for schools across the state. What a shame.

Superintendent Johnson wrote us Friday afternoon and said we should ‘be sensitive to their situations during this time.’ Yeah, I’m sensitive…mad as hell that they’ve been canned for no good reason. Yes, those of us who are left at DPI continue to reel from this Superintendent’s lack of interest/support and total disregard of our work. All semblances of leadership from him and ‘his team’ are vacant and absent.

Speaking of which, he regularly refers to ‘his team’, which are the folks he has hand-picked to come on board in key leadership positions. WE, the hundreds of others who were here before he arrived and hopefully will remain when vacates, are supposed to be ‘his team’; it’s an insult to all of us every time he mentions it.

Know how many years of NC public school teaching experience ‘his team’ has? 30? 40? 50? Read more