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Bill de Blasio

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio – Image: Official website of the City of New York

In 2014, there are lots of basic public structures and social services that Americans, like the inhabitants in other advanced countries, ought to have a right to take for granted. Paid sick days, paid maternity leave, and free higher education, for example, need to be on any such list.

And here’s another one: free, universal, public pre-Kindergarten.

Fortunately, at least one important American jurisdiction is doing something about it. As this recent New York Times editorial notes, the city of New York kicked off an enormously ambitious program this week to provide public pre-K to 50,000 four-year-olds:

The start of public school on Thursday in New York City should be the usual merry scramble of chattering children and stressed (or relieved) parents. There will also be something new: a fresh crop of 4-year-olds, more than 50,000, embarking on the first day of free, full-day, citywide, city-run prekindergarten.

It’s worth pausing to note what an accomplishment this is. Fifty thousand is a small city’s worth of children, each getting a head start on a lifetime of learning. It is so many families saving the cost of day care or private prekindergarten. It is a milestone of education reform.

The editorial goes on to heap praise on New York mayor Bill de Blasio who made the launch of such a program a key plank in his campaign platform and who now despite plenty of critics — including the Times editorial page — has now made good on his promise.

Let’s hope the program is a rousing success and that, like so many other trends that started in the Big Apple, it catches on all over (even in North Carolina) ASAP.

News

The N.C. Supreme Court denied an emergency motion filed last week by attorneys on behalf of Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger and parents to allow taxpayer-funded school vouchers, ruled unconstitutional by a Superior Court judge last month, to be disbursed to private schools immediately while the fate of the program is decided. 

The defendant-intervenors pushing to get school voucher funds out the door filed their motion with the Supreme Court before a written order had been issued by Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood, going against the usual order of business.

The Supreme Court decided to punt the case back to the Court of Appeals today, and because a written order was finally issued by Judge Hobgood late last week, defenders of the school voucher program can once again pursue a temporary stay of his unconstitutional ruling in the lower court, following the normal process.

The Supreme Court’s latest ruling means that those hoping to get school vouchers out to private schools immediately while the final merits of the case are decided now face a potentially weeks-long delay, and it’s unclear how students who have enrolled at private schools with the understanding they would have $4,200 taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay toward their tuition will be affected.

Read the Supreme Court’s ruling below. And for more background on the school voucher legal battle, click here.

Commentary

With all of the incessant battles over testing and standards and privatization, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees when it comes to public education. Fortunately, a recent New York Times op-ed that was republished in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer serves to remind us of what’s really most important when it comes to making schools work — namely the presence of a full complement of caring, loving and properly-trained educators and other professionals.

And as the op-ed notes, one group of professionals that has been proven essential in making schools work — especially schools with high percentages of kids from tough home situations — is social workers:

For the 16 million American children living below the federal poverty line, the start of a new school year should be reason to celebrate. Summer is no vacation when your parents are working multiple jobs or looking for one. Many kids are left to fend for themselves in neighborhoods full of gangs, drugs and despair. Given the hardships at home, poor kids might be expected to have the best attendance records, if only for the promise of a hot meal and an orderly classroom.

But it doesn’t usually work out that way. According to the education researchers Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes at Johns Hopkins, children living in poverty are by far the most likely to be chronically absent from school (which is generally defined as missing at least 10 percent of class days each year)….

The key is to put dedicated social-service specialists in every low-performing, high-poverty school, whether they are employed by the school district or another organization. This specialist must be trained in the delivery of community services, with continued funding contingent on improvement in indicators like attendance and dropout rates.

Putting social workers in schools is a low-cost way of avoiding bigger problems down the road, analogous to having a social worker in a hospital emergency room. It’s a common-sense solution that will still require a measure of political courage, something that all too often has itself been chronically absent.

Of course, merely adding an adequate number of social workers is no panacea for all that ails poor kids or struggling schools. But doing so would be a huge improvement over the current situation and also reenforce the all-too-frequently-forgotten bit of common sense that — whether it’s funding small class sizes, adequate administrative personnel or school nurses — there’s simply no substitute for employing an adequate number of skilled professionals with reasonable workloads when it comes to making our public schools truly successful.

Back to School Series, NC Budget and Tax Center

This is part of a Back to School blog series that highlight various issues to be aware of as the 2014-15 school year kicks off. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

Little things can make big differences in children’s lives. Something as simple as arriving to class with food in your stomach can enhance a child’s learning experience. Many schools across North Carolina recognize this and are offering breakfast and lunch to all of their students at no charge this school year.

As part of the nationwide Community Eligibility Program (CEP), high-poverty schools in at least 36 school systems across North Carolina will provide breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge. This effort not only aims to help end childhood hunger – one in five American schoolchildren can’t count on getting enough nutritious food at home – but also aims to enhance the classroom experience of students. Ensuring that children show up in classrooms each day fed and ready to learn increases the chances of students being more focused, attentive, and engaged.

The school year marks the first year in which eligible schools nationwide can participate in CEP. With all students provided breakfast and lunch free of charge, participating schools are no longer required to collect school meal applications, which reduces administrative costs. These cost savings can now be directed towards covering the cost of the school meals that are provided. Read More

Commentary

The following essay was submitted to NC Policy Watch this week by a concerned public school teacher.

North Carolina teachers and the Common Core: Now what?
By Rod Powell

It’s already here—a new school year.

Despite a turbulent summer for North Carolina schools—in which legislators repealed the Common Core, slashed teacher assistant funding, and implemented a controversial teacher pay schedule—educators are back in the classroom, preparing students for a year of rigorous and engaging learning.

But as teachers begin their classes, many are asking the question, “What exactly should we be teaching our students?”

For the past three years, the answer was the Common Core. But now, thanks to the General Assembly, the work teachers have done to hone the standards is for naught.

Governor Pat McCrory has called for a review of the Common Core, with a commission to put new standards in place for the 2015-2016 school year. (Members of the commission have yet to be appointed, even though the September 1 deadline looms.)

But teachers can’t wait till 2015. We have students in our classrooms now. So what should we do? Do we spend countless hours planning our instruction and lesson plans for this year’s classes, only to have to overhaul them for entirely new standards just one year from now?

State superintendent Dr. June Atkinson assures educators that North Carolina will still operate under the Common Core for this school year. I hope teachers can take her at her word. But that doesn’t change the millions of dollars that have gone into developing Common Core materials and professional development—not to mention the thousands of hours that hardworking North Carolina teachers have dedicated to refining their craft and implementing the standards.

All that money and effort—what a waste.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with my teaching colleagues about this murky situation as we prepare for the school year. Read More