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

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.


Leandro advocates urge lawmakers to focus on funding for sound basic education

Brian Link

Brian Link was fired up.

You could hear it in the East Chapel Hill social studies teacher’s voice Wednesday as he discussed Leandro, the state’s long-running school funding lawsuit.

For more than 25-plus years, Link said, members of the General Assembly from both parties have continually failed to follow the North Carolina Constitution, which requires the state to provide its children with sound basic education.

“Members of both parties have found it easier to do what some of the leaders said is happening in other areas of the budget, just kick the can down the road,” said Link, a member of N.C. Association of Educator’s board of directors.

Link made his comments during a press conference held in front of the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh. The event was staged by Communities for the Education of Every Child NC as part of its “Leandro Advocacy Day.”

The group, which includes the NC Justice Center, planned visits with lawmakers and lunch at John Chavis Park later in the day. Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.

Link criticized state budget adjustments lawmakers revealed Tuesday because they don’t include money to fully fund the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. At issue for him, was nearly $800 million Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson said the state owes the public schools to meet its Leandro obligation this year.

“By all accounts, the budget revealed yesterday still falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of the required threshold spending set forth by Leandro just for the upcoming year,” Link said.

A Justice Center analysis shows a $443.1 million shortfall between the Leandro spending plan for 2022-23 and the budget proposal released by lawmakers Tuesday.

Leandro v. State of North Carolina was brought in 1994 by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children 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 case is going back to court. The North Carolina Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for the week of Aug. 29 to determine whether the state can be forced to fork over an additional $785 million to public schools.

Gayle Headen

Gayle Headen, executive director of Wake County Smart Start, said early childhood education has been woefully underfunded in North Carolina. She said there’s a severe early childhood teacher shortage as a result.

“The shortage of qualified teachers has grown much worse during the pandemic and is now a full-blown crisis,” Headen said. “Classrooms are empty because there aren’t teachers to hire.”

Deborah Maxwell, president of the North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, said that all students in urban centers and rural communities are entitled to sound basic education.

Deborah Maxwell

“Your education should not be dictated by where you live, or as we say, by your zip code,” Maxwell said. “It should be dictated by the fact that you live within the state of North Carolina.”

Maxwell noted that the state has one of the nation’s leading systems of higher education and the second-highest number of historically black colleges and universities.

However, the state’s system of public schools is “regressive” because districts are not funded equitably, Maxwell said.

“We cannot expect to have super, mega-companies come here when we cannot totally, properly across this state educate our students,” Maxwell said. “I should be able to take my grandchild and go from one county to another and know that the same level of services and treatment is available and affordable, but unfortunately it is not.”

Liana Santillan

Lliana Santillan, the executive director of El Pueblo, said lawmakers have spent too much time this year on divisive, “unnecessary” issues, such as House Bill 755, which would ban instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in Kindergarten through third grade.

Santillan said that “the time and energy that our legislators have spent on harmful bills such as HB 755, North Carolina’s ‘Don’t say gay bill,’ would be better spent on improving children’s access to high-quality education.

Education leaders urge lawmakers to continue free meals for K-12 students

School nutrition staff feed children at Southwest Elementary School in 2020.

Hungry children can’t learn, NC Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly said Wednesday.

Kelly’s comment came during a noon press conference held to urge state lawmakers to pass two bills to provide the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students with free breakfast and lunch.

State funding is needed because a federal pandemic-era program that has funded free school breakfast and lunch since March 2020 will expire June 30 unless Congress takes action to keep it afloat.

“As educators, we know first-hand that hungry students can’t learn,” Kelly said. “Extending the free breakfast and lunch program gives students and families some peace of mind that kids will have reliable, healthy meals every day.”

Tamika Walker Kelly (Left) and Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed (Right)

Kelly said that North Carolina is ranked 8th in childhood poverty and one in five kids is food insecure. Over half of North Carolina students are eligible for free or reduced meals, she said.

Data provided by NC Child, a nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to kids’ success, show that 17.9% of the state’s children live in poverty and that 20% live in households that are food insecure.

Senate Bill 855 and Senate Bill 856 would require the NC Department of Public Instruction to allocate money for school breakfast and lunch at no cost.

“We can’t wait for Congress to act,” Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, the Mecklenburg County Democrat who sponsored the bills. “We have the power, and the funding available in North Carolina to extend this crucial program for K-12 students in the next school year.”

Mohammed wants the bills included in budget technical corrections next week.

“Food insecurity for students has been a chronic problem, even before the pandemic,” Mohammed said. “Now, with the rising cost of food, that crisis is far from over.

U.S. Representative Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat, fought to keep the federal program alive last week, telling congressional colleagues that millions of children will go hungry if the program expires, the Charlotte Observer reported.

“Even as the pandemic continues and food prices are on the rise, these waivers are set to expire,” Adams said. “As a 40-year educator, I know hunger has been a crisis in our schools and our communities since long before the pandemic.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis have urged U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis to support legislation to keep the federal program in place.

“The loss of these waivers will devastate school meal programs and threaten their sustainability,” Truitt and Davis wrote in a letter to the senators dated June 10. “School meals will be jeopardized for thousands of North Carolina students who depend upon them as their primary source of food during the week.”