Schools and state health officials should go beyond CDC guidelines to ensure continued access to in-person learning

The author says North Carolina officials should not let down their guard in protecting public school students from COVID-19. Photo: Getty images

As students returned to school across North Carolina this week, school leaders are facing a daunting challenge: how to academically support students knocked off track by the pandemic while still navigating an ongoing COVID pandemic that puts student and staff health in jeopardy.

This critical challenge is heightened by lack of strong guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and state agencies. Once again, it’s our school leaders who are being asked to serve the role of our community’s leading public health practitioners. Luckily, we now know what steps schools should be taking to protect students and staff from COVID infection. These actions will, in turn, protect the continuation of in-person learning that’s critical for boosting academic outcomes.

CDC Guidelines for 22-23

Federal and state health agencies continue to adopt a lasses faire approach more focused on the short-term health of the economy rather than the long-term health of its citizens. Guidelines have been loosened for this school year despite continued community spread and increasingly grim news about the long-term impacts of COVID infections.

In general, the updated CDC guidance for schools this year consists of loose recommendations rather than mandates. The CDC’s recommendations for schools vary based on a measure called “COVID-19 Community Levels.” COVID-19 Community Levels ranks counties based largely on ICU bed availability. These measures were unveiled by the CDC in in February after corporations complained about worker shortages during the Omicron wave. The measures have been roundly criticized by public health experts, mostly for putting the focus on minimizing hospital bed shortages instead of focusing on limiting COVID transmission, and relying on lagging indicators that only raise alarms after community spread is already at dangerously high levels.

The CDC only recommends universal masking when the COVID-19 Community Levels are high. Students with immunocompromised family members are largely on their own. The guidelines state that such students should wear a mask at medium and high COVID-19 Community Levels, but there’s no requirement to mask placed on their non-immunocompromised classmates.

The CDC no longer recommends screening testing. They only recommend diagnostic testing of students or staff with symptoms or who have been exposed to people with confirmed cases.

Students who test positive are supposed to isolate for just five days and wear a mask for another five days.

Students who are exposed to positive cases are no longer expected to quarantine.

The CDC recommends that schools “optimize ventilation” but provides no mandatory standards. Open windows and outdoor classrooms are only recommended when the school is having an outbreak or when the COVID-19 Community Level is high.

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services does not place any additional requirements on schools or make stricter recommendations. They simply defer to the CDC.

Why schools need public health leadership

It is both unfair, and bad public health policy, to place these decisions on school officials. Read more

Alabama is schooling North Carolina on teacher pay

Last week, the General Assembly passed a budget that provides teachers with an average nominal raise of a little over 4%. When adjusted for inflation, the average teacher will actually experience a pay cut of about 3.9%. Somehow, this plan earned bipartisan support, with 32 Democrats joining their Republican colleagues to deliver the Governor a proposal to cut North Carolina teachers’ pay.

If only North Carolina’s legislators were replaced by a bunch of Republicans from Alabama.

In April, Alabama’s legislators passed a new teacher pay plan that is far more generous than North Carolina’s. Alabama’s teacher salary schedule for the 22-23 school year is far more generous than North Carolina’s salary schedule at every experience level. Alabama’s beginning teachers earn 17% more than their North Carolina counterparts, while teachers with 35 years or more of experience earn 23% more than their North Carolina counterparts.

In addition Alabama offers its teachers a 15% supplement for master’s degrees compared to a 10% supplement in North Carolina. Advanced degree and PhD. Supplements are also more generous in Alabama.

Alabama offers National Board certified teachers a flat supplement of $5,000 per year compared to a 12% supplement in North Carolina. North Carolina’s National Board supplement policy is a little more generous for most teachers, but because Alabama’s base pay rates are so much higher than North Carolina’s, all National Board teachers in Alabama earn more than their North Carolina counterparts.

Had North Carolina legislators simply adopted Alabama’s teacher pay schedule last week, North Carolina teachers would be getting nominal raises ranging from 8.6% to 27.2%. The average teacher would be getting a pay raise of 17.4%. That’s more than double last year’s 8.6% increase in inflation. And it exceeds the pay plan currently sitting on the Governor’s desk by a factor of four.

North Carolina would have had to spend about $880 million more in this year’s budget to adopt the Alabama pay plan (the cost of Alabama’s plan compared to North Carolina’s FY22 schedule, less amounts appropriated for the FY23 teacher pay in the 2021 budget). The shortfall between North Carolina and Alabama’s pay plans may seem large, but such a plan is readily affordable.

$880 million represents less than half of the state’s recurring surplus of $2 billion. In other words, legislators could have adopted Alabama’s teacher pay proposal and still had enough left over to fully fund the Leandro Plan and expand Medicaid.

It is also important to remember that North Carolina is a much wealthier state than Alabama. North Carolina’s per capita personal income exceeds Alabama’s by 15% (the gap in per capita GDP is even larger). This implies that North Carolina should be able to afford teacher salaries that are at least 15% greater than Alabama’s. Instead, this latest budget leaves North Carolina teachers with a schedule that falls about 13% short.

Meanwhile, Alabama is already seeing the positive impact of its new salary schedule. Teacher retirements are far below predicted levels, keeping thousands of effective, experienced teachers in Alabama classrooms. North Carolina students would benefit from a similar reduction in turnover and classroom vacancies that would inevitably follow from adopting an Alabama-style teacher pay plan.

It’s not too late for North Carolina legislators to treat our teachers as well as Republican lawmakers are treating teachers in Alabama. Governor Cooper can (and should!) veto this budget. The legislators who voted for the budget can recognize the error in their ways, uphold the Governor’s veto, and return with a budget that provides teachers with the type of pay raises they deserve.

Note: The analysis above does not account for Alabama’s additional supplements for math and science teachers (supplements that range from 12% to 21%), nor does the analysis account for the $5,000 per year stipend Alabama teachers receive for teaching in hard-to-staff schools. Alabama spends at least $80 million per year for these supplements. This analysis also does not account for the $170 million North Carolina spends on the teacher supplement assistance allotment that applies to teachers in 95 of the state’s 100 counties. Alabama’s public school population is approximately 55% of North Carolina’s so these omissions are unlikely to materially affect the analysis above.

Education budget proposal falls short on Leandro and teacher pay

Education policy can get awfully complicated. However, state lawmakers will do a pretty good job if they consider just two guiding questions:

  1. Do our schools meet the bare minimum standards of what’s required under our state constitution?
  2. Are we doing a good job of recruiting and retaining great educators?

The answer to the first question gives us a decent indication as to whether students have access to the basic resources necessary to succeed academically. As the long-running Leandro court case has shown, North Carolina is far from meeting this goal.

The second question is important because education remains a labor-intensive practice. Success in schools is based largely based on the skills of highly-trained professionals and their ability to foster supportive relationships with students. Timely data on this question is difficult to come by, but the number of teacher vacancies more than doubled between the 19-20 and 20-21 school years, and anecdotally, teachers report that morale is distressingly low.

The recently-revealed state budget proposal fails to make progress on either of these fronts (see below). It should be rejected until legislative leaders present a proposal that actually moves our state forward. Read more

Charter school advocates’ obsession with small federal grant program continues to distract from efforts to provide charter students the funding they’re owed

Look at the chart below. Which is larger, the column on the left or the column on the right?

If you answered, “the column on the right” – potential funding increase for charter schools under Leandro – you would be correct. The $405 million of new funding that charters stand to gain from the long-running Leandro court case is more than 61 times the $6.6 million that North Carolina charter schools currently receive through federal Charter School Program (CSP) grants on an annualized basis.

You wouldn’t know this by listening to North Carolina’s leading charter school advocates who have been railing about proposed changes to CSP rules while keeping weirdly silent on the benefits Leandro. This misguided focus continues to undermine efforts to get charter school students the vital school supports they are owed under our state constitution.

As a reminder, Leandro is a 28-year-long court case establishing that North Carolina schools – including charters – are dramatically underfunded. Our state constitution guarantees all students the right to a “sound basic education,” yet lawmakers continue to fail to meet this basic standard. The courts have ordered North Carolina lawmakers to implement a detailed, research-based plan that would provide charter schools an approximately 45 percent increase in state funding by the 2028 school year.

The federal CSP grant provides supplemental funding for North Carolina charters ostensibly “focused on meeting the needs of educationally disadvantaged students.” North Carolina has awarded 61 of the state’s 203 charter schools five-year grants totaling $33 million. Funding for this program remains unchanged under the Biden Administration. However, the Biden Administration recently unveiled potential rule changes that have driven the charter community into a collective conniption. Their anger belies the modest nature of the proposed rule changes, which are largely centered on prioritizing grants for schools that innovate, collaborate with their community, and avoid contributing to racial segregation.

For some reason though, the North Carolina charter community continues to focus on the proposed CSP changes, while staying silent on the much larger issue of whether or not legislators will fulfill their constitutional duty to provide students with access to “sound basic” schools.

For example… Read more

Charter school advocates tell on themselves with whining over federal program changes

The Biden administration has proposed some modest and commonsense rules for the nation’s charter schools.

Advocates for charter schools have long justified the existence of charters by claiming they serve as laboratories of innovation for traditional schools. They have claimed that operational flexibility and exemption from regulation allows them to operate more efficiently than traditional public schools. And they have claimed that they are not only willing – but better suited – to serve students from families with low incomes.

These premises have been disproven over the course of North Carolina’s nearly 30-year-long experiment with charter schools. There are no examples of charter school innovations that have offered new approaches for traditional schools (after all, traditional schools can’t follow the example of “successful” charters that garner high test scores by pushing out struggling students). Nor have charters delivered efficiency gains. Charters spend substantially more on administration than their traditional school counterparts. Most North Carolina charters outspend their neighboring traditional schools while serving a more advantaged student population and delivering weaker academic outcomes. Meanwhile, North Carolina charters continue to exacerbate racial segregation and raise costs for traditional inclusive public schools.

Charter advocates have long disputed the overwhelming evidence of their ineffectiveness. But now, they are making the case themselves.

At issue are recent changes to the terms of the federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant programs. The CSP provides money to states to run grant programs, “to open and prepare for the operation of new charter schools and to replicate and expand high-quality charter schools.” North Carolina was awarded these federal grant funds specifically to support charters, “focused on meeting the needs of educationally disadvantaged students.”

Unfortunately, the program run by North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction has failed to meet these goals. Much of the federal funding has been awarded to schools with a history of serving as white flight charter schools and that enroll substantially fewer students from families with low incomes than nearby inclusive public schools. Incredibly, Torchlight Academy was awarded a $500,000 grant in 2020. Just two years later, this school has had its charter revoked for rampant corruption and poor student results.

Rather than eliminating the CSP entirely, the Biden administration has proposed a few incredibly modest changes to the program’s terms:

  1. Preclude CSP funding for charters being operated by for-profit corporations
  2. Give priority to applications that feature “community school” elements and for those that provide evidence of cooperation or collaborations with the local school district
  3. Require a “community impact” analysis that explains why the school would be beneficial in serving the community
  4. Require schools to report on student demographics and how the charter impacts district diversity

These changes have been met with outrage from charter supporters, who have described the proposal as a “sneak attack,” an act of “sabotage,” and “war.” Superintendent Catherine Truitt filed a public comment railing against these changes, claiming, “if implemented, the proposed rules would have a detrimental effect on the expansion of high-quality charter schools in North Carolina.”

Really?

NC Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt’s complaints about new proposed charter school rules betray some damning truths.

Are high-quality charters unwilling to operate if they can no longer divert as much money as possible into the pockets of corporations? Are charters unwilling to serve as laboratories for innovation that work with traditional public schools to expand promising practices? Are charters unable to craft community impact statements because they are unable to demonstrate community benefits? Are they unwilling to commit to greater school integration efforts because they’d rather effectively pick and choose who their students are?

By opposing the CSP rule changes, charter supporters are implicitly answering the above questions in the affirmative. Their protests affirm the arguments made by charter critics that such schools are overly focused on profit-hoarding, unable to serve as collaborative partners in developing and scaling instructional innovation, exacerbate budget challenges, and contribute to segregation.

The proposed CSP rule changes do not in any way undermine charter schools. They simply ask charters seeking supplemental federal funds to try to live up to the promises made by charter advocates. The protests of charter advocates indicate that – as many of us have been arguing for years – charter schools are largely unable to live up to these promises.

And if charters are – as they now admit – unable to meet these promises, then policymakers should question not just whether they deserve supplemental federal funding through the CSP…but whether such schools are deserving of public funding at all.

Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.