Education

State Rep. Craig Horn becomes the first Republican candidate to join the race for state superintendent

State Rep. Craig Horn

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County, is officially a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Horn is the first GOP candidate in the race for the seat currently held by Republican Mark Johnson who announced plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2020.

Catherine Truitt, the chancellor of Western Governors University, is only other Republican who has expressed interest in the superintendent’s seat but has not yet filed.

Horn is one of the co-chairs of the House’s K-12 Education Committee.

He told Policy Watch last month that he would run only if he believes he can make a difference, his family supports the decision and he is certain he can raise the $500,000 he thinks it will take to be successful.

So far, four of the five Democrats who have said they are running for the seat have filed for election.

The four Democratic candidates are: Charlotte educator and activist Constance Lav Johnson, Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at the College of Education at NC State University, James Barrett, a former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member and Jen Mangrum, a clinical associate professor in the School of Education at UNC-Greensboro who ran for a seat in the legislature last year against Senate leader Phil Berger.

Keith Sutton, who was recently named chairman of the Wake County school board, has announced plans to run for state superintendent but had not filed by the time this story was published.

Amy Jablonski, a Raleigh educational consultant and former teacher, had announced plans to run for the seat but recently said she will not seek the post.

The filing period for most 2020 contests opened at noon on Dec. 2 and will close Dec. 20 at noon.

Education

Leandro report: More funding, quality teachers needed to ensure sound, basic education

An action plan designed to help North Carolina meet its constitutional obligation to provide school children with a “sound, basic education” calls for a sharp increase in school funding to close a stubborn achievement gap between economically disadvantage students and their better-heeled peers.

The cost of such a major undertaking will be expensive.

In a voluminous report released Tuesday, researchers with WestEd, an independent nonprofit research group, placed the cost at nearly $7 billion over the next eight years.

“The big question is whether the judge orders the legislature to put money into the plan,” said State Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Orange County. “We can’t provide an education of the caliber the report calls for on a shoe-string budget.”

Superior Court Judge David Lee directed WestEd to conduct extensive research into the state’s public education system and to bring back recommendations to ensure all students receive a quality education.

The much-awaited report comes nearly a quarter-century after five rural school districts 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 stepped in and held that every child has a right to a “sound, basic education under the state constitution.

Ensuring that right will require significant short-term and long-term investments, the researchers concluded.

“Educating today’s students to meet high standards and to be successful in this century requires new investments in instructional tools and technology and the educator workforce and greater access to educational opportunity for all,” the researchers said.

To meet those higher standards, North Carolina must begin by revising the state funding model to provide adequate, efficient and equitable resources, place a qualified and well-prepared teacher in every classroom and a well-prepared and qualified principal in every school.

“A deep ongoing commitment and wise investments are vital to building and maintaining the required capacity at the school, district, regional, and state levels,” the researchers wrote. “The future of the state hangs in the balance.”

To ensure all children receive a quality education, North Carolina must also:

  • Provide at-risk students with the opportunity to attend high-quality early childhood program.
  • Direct more resources, opportunities and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students.
  • Revise student testing and the school accountability system.
  • Build an effective regional and statewide support system to help improve low-performing and high-poverty schools.
  • Convene an expert panel to help the Court monitor state policies, plans, programs and progress.

“We know that some will resist this long-overdue call to invest in the critical resources and supports our children desperately need,” Rick Glazier, executive director of the N.C. Justice Center and a member of the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education.

(Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.)

But Glazier said he’s confident that after learning more about the WestEd study that North Carolinians will demand lawmakers “act quickly to remedy the harm documented and to provide all children with the education to which they are constitutionally-entitled.”

Gov. Roy Cooper said the state’s economic vitality depends on every child receiving a quality education.

“Your zip-code shouldn’t determine your future, and this groundbreaking report shows that we need to make significant investments in our public schools, strengthen our teacher and principal pipelines, and greatly expand early childhood learning opportunities for our most at-risk students,” Cooper said.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Teachers, said the WestEd report validates claims frequently made by parents and educators that North Carolina’s schools are underfunded.

“The current level of investment being made by the state in public education is not keeping pace with educational needs, and our students, particularly in lower-income areas of the state, are getting left behind,” Jewell said.

Eric Davis, chairman of the State Board of Education, said the WestEd shows there is much work for North Carolina to do to live up to its constitutional promise.

“The findings and analysis in the WestEd Report will help the state and the state board improve North Carolina’s PreK to 12 public school system and make decisions that benefit all public school students, especially those who are most vulnerable and at risk,” Davis said.

Education

State Superintendent Mark Johnson takes offense at DIT ruling upholding stay in Istation controversy

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Superintendent Mark Johnson is pushing back against a state Department of Information Technology (DIT) ruling that upholds a stay blocking the award of the state’s K-3 reading diagnostic contract to Istation.

Amplify, an Istation competitor that previously held the contract, appealed the $8.3 million award, claiming irregularities in the procurement process.

The change from Amplify’s mClass reading assessment tool for K-3 students to Istation has fueled criticism of Johnson for months and put him at odds with DIT.

On Monday, Johnson directed his criticism at Jonathan Shaw, the chief counsel for DIT, who issued a split decision Monday, upholding Amplify’s request for a stay but denying its request to stop Istation from training teachers for free on the new reading diagnostic tool while the legal issues are being hammered out.

“Shaw has already injured the work of DPI and DIT employees with the incompetence with which he has conducted this review process,” Johnson said. “Now, he is adding insult to injury with blatant mistakes that he is using to justify more bad decisions.”

In upholding the stay, Shaw ruled that the “evidence and arguments of record” are sufficient to indicate that NCDPI failed to comply with state law and information technology procurement rules and “jeopardized the integrity and fairness of the procurement process.”

Johnson disagreed.

He accused Shaw of making “clear factual errors.”

“[Jonathan] Shaw and DIT have not in any way, shape, or form followed the legal standard of review for ordering a stay,” Johnson said in a statement issued late Monday. “The stay put in place in August was inappropriate based on the simple fact alone that they never even gave DPI or other parties the chance to respond.”

Johnson cited two specific errors he claims Shaw made but said there are more that are “too numerous” to cover.

One alleged error involved whether DPI informed vendors of the evaluation criteria that would be used to make the contract award.

Despite Shaw’s claim, Johnson said both Amplify and Istation were provided the evaluation criteria in a letter that DPI drafted under the guidance of DIT staffers.

“The vendor’s proposals based on those criteria went through a fair evaluation process guided by DIT staff,” Johnson said.

Johnson also took issue with Shaw’s claim that DPI only put DPI employees on the negotiation evaluation committee who had previously voted for Istation. He said half of the members of the final committee had never voted on the two previous Requests for Proposals.

Shaw also determined:

  • There’s sufficient information to indicate that NCDPI failed to fully consider the minimum required factors listed in state law and instead, relieved on other evaluation factors in making the contract award.
  • There’s sufficient information to indicate NCDPI evaluated different negotiation criteria than what was presented to vendors in a March 21 negotiation letter.
  • There’s sufficient information to indicate NCDPI not only changed the evaluation criteria but altered the ranking of the importance of remaining criteria in a way that benefited Istation.
  • There’s sufficient information to indicate that NCDPI did not notify the parties of changes to solicitations documents in violation of state procurement rules.

Johnson has claimed that the procurement process was tainted. He contends, among other things, that some committee members breached confidentiality and were biased in ways that tilted the evaluation in favor of Amplify.

But many teachers have been critical of the switch from mClass to Istation. They have questioned the procurement process and contend Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

The reading diagnostic tool is a companion to the state’s signature education program, “Read to Achieve,” which was launched in 2013 to ensure every student reads at or above grade level by the end of third grade.

The results haven’t been great even as North Carolina has spent $150 million on the initiative. More than half of the state’s children in K-3 are still not reading at grade level.

Istation told local media outlets that more than 180,000 North Carolina students in grades K-3 have been assessed using its reading diagnostic tool this month.

 

DIT December 2019 Order (PDF)

DIT December 2019 Order (Text)

 

Education

Pitt County charter school in danger of being closed due to poor performance

A small Pitt County charter school dogged by declining attendance, academic failure and financial woes is in danger of being closed.

On Monday, the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) recommended that the State Board of Education (SBE) not renew the charter of Ignite Innovation Academy, which opened in 2016 targeting low-income minority students.

The SBE is expected to decide whether the school remains open early next year. Ignite is one of 18 schools with charters up for renewal. It’s the only one not recommended for renewal by state officials.

Board members cited three consecutive years in which Ignite received a state letter grade of “F” and three straight years of not meeting academic growth expectations as primary reasons for not recommending a three-year renewal for Ignite.

“I just don’t see that this school is going to make it,” said Steven Walker, vice chairman of the CSAB.

Walker noted that grade-level-proficiency among Ignite’s economically disadvantaged students trailed Pitt County’s economically disadvantaged students by 31 percentage points on 2018-2019 state exams.

Only 11.7 percent of Ignite’s economically disadvantaged students were grade-level proficient compared to 42.7 percent of the county’s economically disadvantaged students.

“I think it was a decent idea when we approved this application,” Walker said. “The execution hasn’t been great and that’s to put it nicely.”

A staff report shows that school’s enrollment dropped from a high of 251 students in 2018 to 171 this school year.

And the 2019 audited financial records showed three financial weakness, including a low unassigned fun balance of $6,323, liabilities exceeding current assets by $5,107 and expenditures exceeding revenue by $30,319.

Alex Quigley, chairman of the CSAB, said the trouble at Ignite is one reason why new schools are no longer given 10-year charters.

“It allows us to give the school an opportunity to do something innovative and if it doesn’t work, we can close it,” Quigley said.

Charter critics complain that the schools seldom outperform traditional public schools. They also contend charters siphon students and resources from traditional public schools, contribute to re-segregation and are not held accountable when they fail.

Walker pushed back against the argument that charters aren’t held accountable.

“This is ultimate accountability,” Walker said of not renewing a charter. “If you do not perform, you do not continue to [run] a school.”

Walker said charters operate with fewer regulations but are held to higher standards of accountability than traditional public schools.

Quigley said traditional public schools never have to go before the SBE to explain poor test scores and lobby to remain open.

“When there is real accountability and you might lose your schools, it’s quite motivating,” Quigley said, noting major turnarounds at several traditional public schools that had been tagged for the state’s Innovation School District created by state officials to help low-perforing schools improve student outcomes.

Education

New website intended to make life easier for NCDPI customers

N.C. Department of Public Instruction officials report a smooth transition to a new website the department launched last week.

“We are dealing with a few broken links that we are having to correct (which we expected in the switch) but overall a very smooth transition,” NCDPI Graham Wilson said Monday

You can view the new website at https://www.dpi.nc.gov/.

The new website replaces one that had been in use for many years. It was a clunky, difficult site to navigate and was often the target of criticism by teachers, parents, administrators and others searching for basic information.

Superintendent Mark Johnson told the State Board of Education during its monthly meeting Friday that the new website is much easier to navigate.

“We’re supposed to be a customer service agency,” Johnson said. “Our customers are the parents, students and teachers of North Carolina. We need to make things easy for them to use and our website was a terrible reflection of that.”

Educators responding to a Policy Watch question about the new website on the North Carolina Teachers United Facebook page noted problems with the site such as the teacher salary schedule, which only provides teacher pay data from 2016 to the current pay schedule.

When told about the salary schedule, Wilson said the old website only published salary schedules dating back to 2016. He said historical salary schedule data can be found at https://web.archive.org/.

The link sends viewers to The Wayback Machine, which. is a digital archive of the World Wide Web founded by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco.

Others complained about not being able to find the things they need. And one respondent criticized the site for having what she described as “lots of MJ [Mark Johnson] propaganda!”