Commentary

Editorial: Stop putting tax cuts and conservative ideology ahead of decent teacher pay

It’s a theme that’s been invoked and echoed repeatedly across North Carolina in recent years, but it deserves to be raised up once more today in anticipation of the 2016 legislative session that convenes next month. This morning, the Greensboro News & Record does the honors in a lead editorial entitled simply “Pay teachers better”:

“Educators don’t enter the profession to get rich, but they’re entitled to do the best they can. Those who teach subjects in greatest demand, such as math and science, often can choose from among better opportunities. School systems that seriously want to attract the best teachers should be prepared to compete. But they face obstacles.

The number of young people training to become teachers through our UNC schools of education is declining steadily, despite recent increases in starting pay to $35,000.

Other factors negate the effect of higher pay. New teachers in North Carolina are no longer eligible to achieve career status, or tenure. This basic job protection simply requires due process before teachers can be dismissed.

Teachers who already earned career status are fighting in court to keep it. Two lower courts took their side, ruling the state can’t remove tenure once it’s granted, but that decision is before the N.C. Supreme Court. If it’s reversed, more veteran teachers could leave — not because they aren’t good teachers but because it would be another blow to their dignity on top of very limited pay increases over many years.

School systems also have less money to offer bonus payments to attract and keep top teachers. The state has cut per-pupil allocations and diverted money to private schools and for-profit virtual schools. Not only are schools losing money they could use to supplement teacher salaries, they’re losing funding for teaching assistants, who make life easier for classroom teachers.

Earlier this year, state Superintendent June Atkinson recommended a 10 percent, across-the-board pay raise for teachers. Legislators suggest that a 2 percent raise is more realistic, given the state’s finances.

The state’s finances would be stronger without the legislature’s drive to reduce the corporate income tax to nothing over the next few years — as if businesses don’t depend on a well-educated workforce. They should be willing to pay for better schools.

Republican lawmakers would rather pay better salaries for the most effective teachers, but that strategy can’t work unless salaries are high enough to attract more people into teaching in the first place. In addition, there will be fewer vacancies if veteran teachers are encouraged to stay a few years longer rather than retire as soon as they’re eligible. Putting them under a pay ceiling doesn’t invite them to stay.

North Carolina is 42nd in the country in average teacher pay. One doesn’t have to be a math teacher to see that’s a formula for failure.”

News

Eastern N.C. county road-tests program to keep students reading during the summer

school-busespng-91b35e2c325e0b5bThe “summer slide” is well documented. Students tend to lose some of their educational gains over the summer months. It is, of course, one of the reasons why some will fervently argue for restructuring the school calendar.

Today, EdNC posted a fascinating report on rural Perquimans County, a relatively low-wealth county in northeastern North Carolina, that unveiled a new program aimed at blunting that summer slide.

From EdNC‘s Seth Effron:

So, the obvious: What about giving the students a device that would bring as many as 40 books to the students at one time, that weighed less than a pound and easily fit into a backpack?

“By using technology to increase access to books, we hoped children would read more and sustain reading skills throughout the summer break,” Fields said.

By combining some funds from Race to the Top with Title I and other technology dollars, the school system was able to partner with Barnes & Noble Booksellers and purchase 160 Nooks for second graders.

The results? According to Effron, there was some good news in the data.

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News

The “elephant in the room”: North Carolina still suspending black students at a higher rate

school-busespng-91b35e2c325e0b5bCalling it the “elephant in the room,” at least one advisor to the N.C. State Board of Education demanded answers Thursday morning about the state’s continually high rate of suspensions for black students in the 2014-2015 academic year.

The call came amidst a report from state staff on suspensions and expulsions that showed black students were significantly more likely to receive short-term and long-term suspensions than their peers, a stable trend in North Carolina public schools over the years. (Note: The suspension data begins on page 23 of the report.)

James Ford, the state’s Teacher of the Year and an advisor to the state board, asked for an explanation for the “racialized gaps” in the data, but didn’t leave with many answers.

More than 118,000 black students received short-term suspensions last year, the report said, a rate of about 3 suspensions per every 10 black students.

By comparison, 54,812 white students received short-term suspensions, a rate of about .71. The second-highest rate belonged to American Indian students, who received about 2.52 suspensions per 10 students.

The data captured a similar trend in long-term suspensions. Black students, by far, received a higher number in 2014-2015, coming in with 601 reported long-term suspensions. That’s a rate of about 153 long-term suspensions per 100,000 black students.

The rate for white students was about 37 per 100,000 students. American Indian students had the next highest rate, about 88 long-term suspensions per 100,000 students.

The racial gaps in suspension data have been a concern in North Carolina for some time. After reading the report Wednesday, N.C. Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., the Democrat from Forsyth County who serves as vice chair of the House Education Committee, blasted school leaders over the numbers, calling them “crazy high rates” for black students.

Hanes said such numbers could explain why some black parents are looking for alternatives to public schools through charters and private school vouchers. Hanes was one of a number of Democrats who backed the state’s controversial voucher program—the Opportunity Scholarship program—in 2013.

In an email to Policy Watch, Hanes said of the report, which also captured the first increase in the state’s dropout rate in eight years:

“We are inoculated against the suffering of Black people and especially their children.  Black lives don’t matter.  Black voices don’t matter unless they speak against white voices who demand status quo.  If you happen to be poor and white, well, you don’t matter much either because you allowed yourself to get caught in places where black people congregate.  The truth is the general assembly really doesn’t care a whole lot about poor people and never has.”

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News

Withdrawals in North Carolina’s virtual charters continue to soar

Virtual charter schoolsIn January, we reported on the staggeringly high withdrawal rates in the pilot program for North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools.

An updated report, which is scheduled to be presented to the N.C. State Board of Education Wednesday afternoon, isn’t likely to assuage those concerns.

State staff were expected to explain to board members Wednesday how the publicly-funded virtual schools saw withdrawals only worsen in the last two months.

According to their report, N.C. Connections Academy, owned by the British multinational corporation Pearson PLC, counted a total of 505 students dropped out of the online school program in the first five months, or more than 25 percent of total enrollments in the school during that time period.

And Virtual Academy, managed by the controversial Virginia-based company K-12, Inc., saw 497 withdrawals in the first five months, meaning about 26 percent of their enrollments dropped out of the program.

Both withdrawal rates represent increases on the first three months at Connections Academy and Virtual Academy, which were logged at about 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

K-12 Inc.’s virtual programs have been a source of controversy across the country, particularly in states like California and Tennessee where residents lambasted the poor testing results for virtual school students.

A Stanford University study last fall showed students at virtual charters nationwide lagging far behind public school students in reading and math.

Supporters of virtual charter programs say they can be a means of transformation for students who struggle in traditional public school programs.

They have also responded to the high dropout rates in the early months by pointing out that virtual programs nationwide typically experience high numbers of withdrawals in their first months.

News

Three students file court challenge to an eastern N.C. charter’s policy requiring that girls wear skirts

charterschools-300x202Three students at a Brunswick County charter school are challenging the school’s policy requiring that girls wear skirts, the ACLU of N.C. said today.

The ACLU and Raleigh firm Ellis & Winters LLP filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of N.C. Monday on behalf of three students—ages 5, 10 and 14—at Charter Day School in Leland, which is just north of Wilmington.

In the suit, the ACLU explains that the K-8 public charter school, which serves more than 900 students, also bans girls from wearing shorts or pants under its dress code. Violating the policy can result in “discipline or even expulsion,” the ACLU said.

In the lawsuit, which you can read here, the girls say “wearing skirts restricts their movement, inhibits them in school situations such as playing at recess or sitting on the floor, and causes them to feel uncomfortably cold in the winter.”

From the ACLU statement:

“There are a lot of situations – whether it’s playing outside, sitting on the floor, or trying to stay warm in the cold – where wearing a skirt makes my daughter uncomfortable and distracts her from learning,” said Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a 5-year-old Charter Day School student who is a client in the case. “I’m not against a dress code, but it’s 2016. Girls should be allowed to wear pants as part of the dress code. As a parent, nothing is more important to me than my children, and I don’t want an outdated policy to get in the way of their education.”

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