Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

NC Association of Educators: Licensure and compensation proposal won’t solve recruitment and retention problems

NCAE vice president, Bryan Proffitt (left), explains the group’s opposition to a new teacher compensation plan at a Tuesday press conference. Photo: Greg Childress

Bryan Proffitt, vice president of the NC Association of Educators, was working as a furniture packer in 2004 when offered his first K-12 teaching job.

The competition for teaching positions in North Carolina was so fierce, Proffitt remembers, that he didn’t get a job offer until two weeks into the new school year despite having an advanced degree, teaching license, great recommendations and two years of experience as a university instructor under his belt.

“I was packing up someone’s house when I got the call that I got a job,” Proffitt said during an NCAE press conference Tuesday. “It was like getting called up to the majors. I couldn’t believe it.”

A lot has changed in 18 years, Proffitt said. Teaching jobs in the state are no longer coveted, and many educators are making the hard decision to quit the profession due to low pay and terrible working conditions. School districts are reporting hundreds of vacancies with only a few weeks left before the start of school.

Proffitt said a new licensing and compensation proposal backed by state education leaders to replace the state’s seniority-based teacher salary system with one that partially rewards teachers for student performance on state tests now threatens to make North Carolina’s teacher recruitment and retention efforts even more difficult.

He and a dozen or more educators, parents and supporters gathered at the Halifax Mall on Tuesday to push back against the plan educators complain relies too heavily on student test scores to reward teachers and does little to address recruitment and retention challenges.

“With respect to recruitment, we already know what works and what we can build upon,” Proffitt said. “North Carolina’s university system and its high-quality schools of education have been a source of great strength in our state for decades. Reinvest in our schools of education and expand programs that work like Teaching Fellows into our state’s historically black universities in order to recruit a teaching force that better reflects of state’s racial diversity.”

The NC Teaching Fellows is a merit-based, loan forgiveness program that provides up to $8,250 a year for up to four years to students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in state schools. Currently, the program’s eight universities include three minority-serving schools, North Carolina A&T and Fayetteville State universities and UNC Pembroke.

To keep educators in schools, Proffitt said the state must continue to pay them based on experience.

“Start every teacher in the state at a minimum of $45,000 and return to the annual experience steps and cost-of-living increases that historically have allowed veteran educators to stay in our classrooms with our kids,” Proffitt said. “Experience-based pay keeps high-quality educators in schools.”

The Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) presented a draft proposal of the new system — labeled “North Carolina Pathways to Excellence for Teaching Professionals” — to the State Board of Education in April. If the proposal is approved and implemented, standardized tests, principal and peer evaluations, and student surveys would be used to determine whether a teacher is effective.

The proposal would create a system of entry-level certifications with the goal of bringing more people into the profession. One certification under the plan would serve essentially as a learner’s permit. It would allow aspiring educators with associate degrees to teach for two years while they earn a bachelor’s degree.

The new model also creates multiple steps at which educators can advance in the profession, including “expert” and “advanced” teaching roles that allow them to earn higher pay for taking on additional responsibilities such as coaching novice teachers.

The NCAE press conference came just days after two of the state’s top education leaders made bold statements in support of revisions to the state’s licensure and pay program.

At last Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said changes are needed to improve teacher recruitment and retention.

Davis said North Carolina is in a “crisis” because too few students are enrolling in schools of education while veteran teachers are leaving the profession at alarming rates.

“In short, our state is in a teaching crisis that’s having a significant, negative impact on today’s students, and if not corrected will damage our state for generations to come,” Davis said.

The educators who joined Proffitt on Tuesday say they are skeptical about the changes they believe will deemphasize teaching experience. Davis and Truitt both deny the plan would move the state to a “merit pay” system.

Kiana Espinoza, an eighth-grade English teacher, said family and friends often ask how long she can continue to work in a profession that doesn’t provide adequate pay.

“My answer to them is that I can afford to be a teacher right now, but in a few years when I have more expenses and a family, who knows?” Espinoza said.

Susan Book, a Wake County parent and member of NC Families for Testing Reform, said she is concerned about teacher vacancies and the move to rely on student test scores to reward teachers.

“If you thought North Carolina’s teaching to the test was bad before, this system only increases the chances that it will get worse,” Book said. “That’s months of testing prep when our kids could be learning new material and expanding their creativity. I want our teachers to be more than a test score as well. Experience matters and I’m listening to teachers.”

Citing ‘teaching crisis,’ state education leaders back new licensure and compensation plan

North Carolina teachers marched for better pay.

The state has a “teaching crisis” and must revamp its licensing and compensation system to recruit and retain quality teachers, Eric Davis, the chairman of the State Board of Education, said Thursday.

Davis noted that teacher vacancies throughout North Carolina are “soaring” while enrollment in “colleges of education has fallen over the last few years.”

“In short, our state is in a teaching crisis that’s having a significant, negative impact on today’s students, and if not corrected will damage our state for generations to come,” Davis said.

The chairman brushed back claims that the proposal is a backdoor attempt to implement an unwanted system of merit pay for teachers.

Eric Davis

“There’s simply not enough tested subjects to base compensation on student testing,” Davis said. “However, there are countless teachers in all years of experience across our state who today are creating positive outcomes for their students and who are not being sufficiently recognized, learned from or rewarded for their great work.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt joined Davis on Thursday to offer a full-throated endorsement of the proposed changes she contends will allow teachers to advance in their careers and be rewarded and recognized for improving academic outcomes for students.

Catherine Truitt

“They [teachers] deserve the chance to climb the ladder without having to leave the classroom for administration,” Truitt said.

A day after Davis and Truitt made their remarks, the N.C. Association of  Educators announced that it will hold a press conference Tuesday at 10 a.m., on Halifax Mall to push back against changes the organization says would replace an experienced-based pay system for “untested methods” that heavily rely on standardized test scores, peer evaluations and student surveys to determine whether teachers keep their licenses.

Here is what the NCAE said about the proposal in a press release:

“Decades of defunding public education and cutting teacher pay have long forced experienced teachers out of the profession, and the pandemic exacerbated the staffing crisis, with some districts reporting hundreds of resignations. The proposed changes do nothing to get at the root of the cause of low recruitment and retention numbers. Instead, it lowers the standards to become a teacher disguised as increasing pathways to enter the profession, a risky gamble for our state’s important investment: our students.”

In addition to revising how teachers are paid, the new proposal would create a system of entry-level certifications with the goal of bringing more people into the profession. One certification under the plan would serve essentially as a learner’s permit, that would allow aspiring educators with associate degrees to teach for two years while they earn a bachelor’s degree.

The new model creates multiple steps at which educators can advance in the profession, including “expert” and “advanced” teaching roles that allow them to earn higher pay for taking on additional responsibilities such as coaching novice teachers.

Truitt has said that it’s wrong to label the proposal “merit pay.”

“We’re trying to address the ongoing, pervasive challenge that many teachers feel that they do all of this extra work, which is tantamount to volunteer work that they’re not compensated for,” the superintendent said in April during a State Board of Education meeting.

Davis’ and Truitt’s defense of the controversial proposal was quickly criticized on social media on Thursday.

“The current teaching crisis is not about our licensure system,” tweeted NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. “Chairman “[Eric] Davis (and others) are being incredibly disingenuous by continuing to repeat that to push a deeply disliked plan. #nced”

The Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) presented a draft proposal of the new system — labeled “North Carolina Pathways to Excellence for Teaching Professionals” — to the State Board of Education in April. If the proposal is approved and implemented, standardized tests, principal and peer evaluations, and student surveys would be used to determine whether a teacher is effective.

The State Board is expected to consider the changes in the fall. Davis said that whatever is approved then is unlikely to be the final version of the plan. He believes the new method will be continuously revised and updated as more feedback is received from educators and other stakeholders. Davis urged teachers to email [email protected] to share their feedback.

As Policy Watch previously reported, Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle school teacher and education policy commentator who writes at the website at Notes from the Chalkboard, has taken on a leading position in pushing back against the new licensing and compensation model.

Parmenter said in a Facebook post that Truitt was being disingenuous Thursday when she claimed that the process that produced the draft licensure and compensation plan has been thorough and open.

“Are you serious right now?” Parmenter wrote in the post. “I’m so glad to hear Truitt has had a complete change of heart since March, when she wanted to dissuade EdNC’s editor Mebane Rash from surveying educators.  Or April, when she “wanted to squash outside focus groups and surveys.” Or May, when she told people in a private meeting that the proposal was too far down the road for significant changes.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt says Parent Advisory Commission has broad representation

A broad cross-section of parents is represented on State Superintendent Catherine Truitt’s new Parent Advisory Commission, the superintendent said Thursday.

Truitt made her remarks to the State Board of Education during an update on the 48-member panel she will turn to for insight and perspectives on K-12 education matters.

Some educators and State Board members have been critical of the panel’s makeup, complaining that parents of homeschooled students and private school students are overrepresented. Parents homeschooling children and those with children in private schools have 33% of the panel’s seats. Roughly 76% of the state’s children attend traditional public schools.

Catherine Truitt

Truitt said Thursday that some homeschool parents and private school parents selected to serve also have students in traditional public schools.

“There’s a lot to dig into there about what’s happening in families where one child is homeschooled or goes to a private school and another child attends a neighborhood public high school,” Truitt said.

Truitt shared that an application question about who is responsible for a child’s education factored heavily into the selection of commission members. Answers to that question ranged from the government should not have a role in a child’s education to the government is responsible, she said.

“I’m excited to share that everything in between is what is represented on the parent council,” Truitt said. “There is a wide variety of opinions about education.”

Truitt has been taken to task for not taking steps to ensure that Black and Hispanic parents are adequately represented on the commission.

My concern is about the inclusion of all parents, particularly those who are least likely to have a voice in the system,” State Board member James Ford said in April.

A little more than 50% of children attending the state’s traditional public schools are students of color. The racial makeup of the panel has not been shared by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI).

On Thursday, the superintendent did say,  however, that no one completed a Spanish version of the application.

“That’s something that we want to pay attention to,” Truitt said.

Truitt has dodged questions about the racial makeup of the board, choosing instead to focus on the panel’s diversity only in the broadest sense.

She continued that pattern Thursday in the update to the State Board. She shared, for example, that eight members of the panel are parents of children with special needs, one is a military parent, two are foster parents and one is the parent of a child enrolled in a dual language program.

In addition, Truitt said only 4% of those who completed applications were men. She noted that there were few parents of charter school students to choose from in the Western part of the state because there’s not a large concentration of charters in that part of the state.

The commission includes parents or guardians selected for two-year terms from each of the state’s eight education districts. The full panel will hold its first meeting on Sept. 15. The six members from each region will meet virtually every month. The full commission will meet quarterly both in person and virtually.

Truitt said parents will set agendas for meetings. However, parents will first learn about how North Carolina’s schools are governed before they begin to develop meeting topics, the superintendent said.

144 organizations sign onto brief asking Supreme Court to order compliance with school funding plan

Attorneys filed an amicus (or “friend of the court”) brief endorsed by a coalition of 144 education, civil rights, philanthropic, and community-based organizations with the North Carolina Supreme Court this week in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit.

The brief was filed by lawyers with the law firm Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard and the North Carolina Justice Center as the court prepares to hear arguments in the case next month. [Note: Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.]

At issue is approximately $785 million Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson, the judge overseeing the case, says the state owes public schools as part of an $8 billion school improvement plan that grew out of a report by WestEd, a consulting firm hired to examine North Carolina’s public education system.

The brief contends the state has consistently failed to provide every child in North Carolina with access to the educational opportunities to which they are constitutionally entitled under the previous rulings in the case and calls on the Supreme Court to order the dispersal of state funds necessary to comply improvement plan.

The brief also features research conducted by the Public School Forum North Carolina and community input from a coalition of 144 education, civil rights, philanthropic, and community-based organizations.

The Leandro case began nearly three decades ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

The coalition reports a $4.6 billion increase in public education costs for enrollment, salaries, and benefits between 2004 and today. State funding for public schools, however, has only increased by $4.1 billion since 2004, leading to a shortfall of approximately $500 million, the coalition stated in the brief.

The gap does not include other cost drivers such as fuel for school buses, supplies and materials, and technology, the coalition said.

Among the ways the coalition contends the shortfall in state funding is reflected in current public education system:

  • North Carolina’s per-pupil expenditure by state and local sources (adjusted for local costs) ranks 48thout of 50 states and the District of Columbia, with $9,954 per pupil, an amount that is $4,594 less than the national average per pupil. South Carolina by comparison ranks 24thin the country with a per pupil expenditure of $14,090 and Virginia ranks 35th at $12,714 per pupil. In short, the amount available for local school districts to spend on public education is significantly less than the amount available to districts in neighboring states.
  • The State is funding fewer teacher and teacher assistant positions on a per-student basis than it funded in the 2003-04 school year.
  • Teacher compensation has declined since 2004. Had teacher pay maintained parity with inflation since 2004, average teacher pay would have been $61,033 in the 2020-21school year. Instead, the actual average teacher pay was $53,458.
  • North Carolina ranked 46thin the country for average salaries of instructional staff for the 2020-21 school year, significantly lower salaries than its neighbors: South Carolina’s average salary was $60,608 (30th in the U.S.) and Virginia’s was $60,880 (29th in the U.S.).
  • According to the most recent data (covering the years 2014 to 2018), North Carolina teachers earn 26.5 percent less than their similar-aged peers with college degrees, the 7th worst wage gap in the nation.

Click here to explore the brief.

Torchlight Academy’s assets to be stored until judge determines ownership

Don McQueen (Center) confers with lawyers Friday, June 8, 2022, in Wake County Superior Court.

The assets of the defunct Torchlight Academy charter school will be held in storage until a judge determines ownership, the school’s board of directors and the leader of its former management firm agreed Friday during a hearing in Wake County Superior Court.

Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins oversaw Friday’s hearing.

The management firm, Torchlight Academy Schools, LLC, and the board are in a dispute over ownership of certain assets in the wake of the State Board of Education closing the school for good due to egregious management and governance issues.

Torchlight’s board was granted a temporary restraining order last month to prevent the management firm and its owner Don McQueen from “taking, moving, secreting or destroying property” at the elementary and middle school.

The board also demanded that the management firm return two Ford Expeditions, 12 big-screen televisions and 23 laptops computers and tablets taken from the school between June 21-23.

Stephon Bowens, the board’s attorney, said the management firm agreed Friday to return the two SUVs but made no admission of having removed the televisions, laptops or other electronic equipment from the schools.

“The concern was that we wanted to make certain that property wouldn’t continue to be lost in some way pending resolution of who owns the property,” Bowens said.

McQueen, who was also the school’s longtime executive director, told Policy Watch that he welcomes the opportunity to settle the disagreement with his former employer.

“I always enjoy when we can resolve things without the courts being involved,” McQueen said. “I always think we should try to resolve things as community members and as family members. I think that’s what happened here today, at least we took a step in that direction.”

Torchlight Academy closed on June 30, following a rocky year dominated by headlines about McQueen’s mismanagement of the charter school. The school once enrolled more than 600 K-8 students.

The state board terminated Torchlight’s charter in March after a NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) investigation turned up serious fiscal and management concerns. Torchlight’s Board of Directors quickly fired the management firm and McQueen after learning about NCDPI’s concerns. The board has faced criticism for its poor oversight of the school’s affairs.

The NCDPI investigation found serious misconduct in the school’s special education program, which was led by McQueen’s daughter, Shawntrice Andrews. State records show Andrews altered students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents in a student data management system monitored by the state, which is a violation of federal law. An IEP ensures students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and related services.

NCDPI records also show that the McQueens paid their son-in-law, Aaron Andrews, $20,000 per month to clean a portion of the school being used by the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Center program, Policy Watch previously reported. Such centers provide children in high-poverty, low-performing schools academic help during non-school hours. Aaron Andrews’ custodial firm, Luv Lee Sanitation, was responsible for cleaning the six classrooms and common areas used exclusively by the program. The contract was signed by Cynthia McQueen.