With latest voucher bills, NC House and Senate compete to undermine public education

Both House and Senate leaders have now introduced bills (H32 in the House, S671 in the Senate) overhauling North Carolina’s three voucher programs in an apparent effort to see who can do more to dismantle public schools. Both bills are long, complex, and would further subsidize students in unregulated private schools at the expense of their peers in inclusive public schools.

Currently, North Carolina has three voucher programs. Both bills would modify all three vouchers.

The first, and by far the largest, is the Opportunity Scholarship program. This program was originally designed to provide vouchers of up to $4,200 to North Carolinians with low incomes (up to 185% of the federal poverty level). Subsequent modifications have increased the income eligibility to 278% of the federal poverty level ($72,705 for a family of four). For this year, the General Assembly appropriated $75 million to the program. Under current law, funding for this voucher is set to increase by $10 million per year until annual appropriations reach $145 million – the state’s only education program with guaranteed funding increases.

The second-largest program is the Disabilities Grant voucher. This voucher provides up to $8,000 per year for students with disabilities who enroll in a nonpublic school. Unlike the Opportunity Scholarship, there are no family income limits on eligibility. This program is currently funded at nearly $16 million.

Finally, North Carolina also has the Education Savings Account that is also only open to families of students with disabilities. These “vouchers on steroids” provide families with debit cards of up to $9,000 per year that can be used to purchase tuition, educational technology, or other educational services. These programs have little oversight, and have been littered with fraud. North Carolina currently commits nearly $7 million to this program.

It is important to note that under both the Disabilities Grant and the Education Savings Account, families are foregoing their federal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These foregone rights include, “the rights being waived can include the right to a free education; the right to the same level of special-education services that a child would be eligible for in a public school; the right to a state-certified or college-educated teacher; and the right to a hearing to dispute disciplinary action against a child.” Many families are unaware that private schools do not have to comply with federal laws.

H32 and S671 would modify all three of these programs, and not for the better. None of the changes strengthen the nearly nonexistent accountability or quality standards of the voucher schools. Too many state-subsidized voucher schools will continue to rely on curricula that echoes “the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” There are no additional protections against fraud. And parents of students with disabilities will continue to be cut adrift, having to navigate an unregulated market with no federal rights.

The table below summarizes the General Assembly’s proposed changes: Read more

Governor’s education budget shows that we can give students the education they’re owed

Gov. Roy Cooper

The biggest public school issue facing North Carolina’s state education policymakers this session is whether or not the state will make progress on providing children with the education they are owed under our state constitution. The Governor’s budget proposal marks an important first step towards securing such progress this year.

Under the decades-long Leandro court case, North Carolina’s courts have consistently found that state leaders have been failing to provide students with the type of education they are owed under our state constitution. According to the 2019 WestEd report, North Carolina was once making progress towards meeting its constitutional obligations to children. However, the past 10 years of austerity budgets and misguided legislation have moved our state backwards.

On March 15, the state submitted a detailed action plan to deliver a constitutionally sound education system by the 2028 school year. The plan sets forth specific investments and policy changes that, in the words of the Every Child NC coalition, are strong, equitable, and affordable.

Importantly, the Governor’s budget proposal incorporates all of the elements of the Leandro action plan, including:

  • Pay raises for teachers and principals that will boost average salaries by 10 percent by the 2023 school year;
  • Substantial investments in early childhood programs to expand NC Pre-K, Smart Start, early intervention services, and salary supplements for early childhood educators;
  • Expanded funding for children with disabilities, English learners, disadvantaged students and other funding streams that will greatly improve the equity of North Carolina’s school finance system;
  • Funding to begin staffing school nurses, psychologists, counselors, librarians, and social workers at recommended staffing ratios, and to restore funding for teacher assistants; and
  • Investments to improve the recruitment, retention, and diversity of teachers and school leaders.

If implemented, the proposal would put the state on a reasonable path to achieve its Leandro goals by the 2028 school year.

That said, the Governor’s plan for this biennium could have been more ambitious. The aforementioned WestEd report recommended the state invest more aggressively in the first years of an eight-year plan, while the Governor’s plan would see more aggressive funding increases pushed out to later years. As my colleague Alexandra Sirota points out, the Governor’s budget “misses a critical moment for getting NC on a sustainable path to more equitable outcomes” by “passing on popular options to raise the tax rates paid by high-income taxpayers and profitable corporations.” Additional revenue would have made it easier for the state to meet its goal of providing a sound basic education to all students by the 2028 school year.

Still, the Governor’s proposal would mark the fist substantial increase in public school resources in more than a decade. If enacted, it would begin to reverse North Carolina’s back-sliding and serve an important down-payment on the state’s continuing efforts to provide all students with the education they are owed.

New analysis of school and COVID data suggests additional caution warranted

As this week’s education news has been dominated by the General Assembly’s top-down efforts to force schools to return to in-person instruction, a new analysis offers a note of caution. Data analysis from Wake County Board of Education member (and NC State chemistry professor) Jim Martin pushes back on the narrative that COVID incidence in schools is lower than in the surrounding community. Additionally, the analysis identifies spikes in reported cases for school-aged children in Wake County appear to correlate with in-person opening of schools.

The analysis does not offer a definitive assessment as to whether schools are “safe,” but it provides evidence that the dominant narrative may be overly optimistic:

The above data do not answer the question as to whether or not it is possible to safely operate schools in an in-person fashion but indicate that additional caution may be warranted.  The incidence of COVID infection in schools is comparable to the incidence of infection in the surrounding community.  The Wake County data also strongly suggest that in-person schooling, even under hybrid models, has an identifiable impact on the community incidence of COVID infection.  State health officials should examine whether dates of in-person operation similarly correlate with community incidence of COVID infections in other counties.

To reach these conclusions, Martin undertakes a detailed examination of state and Wake County data on COVID incidence disaggregated by age cohort. By disaggregating the data by age cohort, Martin provides evidence that – contrary to claims made by the ABC Science Collaborative – COVID incidence in schools is similar to community incidence.

Martin’s analysis also provides evidence that spikes in school-aged COVID incidence in Wake County correlates with in-person opening of schools. For example, Martin identifies an increase in COVID incidence for Wake County’s age 5-9 cohort following the county’s return to hybrid-in-person instruction for grades Pre-K to 3 on October 26. An additional increase in November corresponds to the county’s decision in November to begin daily in-person (Plan-A) operation for Pre-K to 3, hybrid in-person instruction for grades 6-8, and the return of certain high school athletics.

Ultimately, Martin calls for policymakers to prioritize vaccination of school staff and to ensure that schools follow rigorous safety protocols.

Martin’s full analysis can be found here.

National experts highlight how much tax cuts for the wealthy have cost NC schools

Two new reports from researchers at the Education Law Center document the extent to which North Carolina’s legislative leaders have shifted state resources out of our schools, and into the pockets of their wealthy benefactors.

The first report, Making the Grade 2020, provides an important snapshot comparing school funding in North Carolina to other states. The report assesses each state along three measures of school funding:

The failing marks North Carolina has received from ECS are consistent with findings from other researchers such as the Albert Shanker Institute and Education Week.

Sadly, North Carolina’s scores along these measures have remained largely unchanged over the past several decades. Going back to at least the late 2000’s, North Carolina has consistently ranked near the bottom of all states for funding level and effort. Consistently poor rankings have failed to inspire state lawmakers to create a funding system that’s more adequate or equitable.

As the ELC’s second report, $600 Billion Lost, makes clear, North Carolina’s lawmakers are doing far less for our schools than they were prior to the Great Recession.

The report calculates that in the decade following the Great Recession, students across the U.S. lost nearly $600 billion from states’ disinvestment in their public schools. That is, if states had maintained their pre-Recession effort levels, school funding would have been $600 billion higher in 2018.

The problem is particularly acute in North Carolina where the state’s school funding effort fell from 45th to 49th in the decade following the Great Recession.

As the economy recovered from the Great Recession, state leaders enacted a series of large tax cuts that have drained funding from schools and other state services. These tax cuts have largely benefitted wealthy North Carolinians and corporations. For example, the ELC reports that revenue from progressive the corporate income tax is 52 percent below pre-Recession levels, while the revenue from the regressive sales tax remains unchanged from pre-Recession levels.

Our schools have been paying the price from these decisions. If North Carolina had simply maintained its anemic pre-Recession funding effort levels (when we ranked 45th), our schools would have had $4 billion of additional revenue in 2018. That equates to lost funding of $2,771 per student.

Reductions in school funding have been found to disproportionately harm Black students and those from families with lower incomes. When coupled with the changes to North Carolina’s tax code, state leaders have greatly exacerbated inequality in the past decade.

North Carolina does not need to continue down this path. The 2019 WestEd report offers state policymakers a roadmap for improving the adequacy and equity of state funding, as well as additional reforms that would strengthen our public schools. The courts – as part of the long-running Leandro case – are expected to issue an additional, more detailed eight-year spending plan in the coming months.

For additional information on school funding in North Carolina, ELC has created state profile reports which can be found here and here.

Judge Howard Manning’s misguided views on education should also be retired

Retired Judge Howard Manning

Now-retired North Carolina Superior Court Judge Howard Manning’s chief claim to fame during a lengthy judicial career came from overseeing the landmark Leandro school funding case from 2000 to 2015. Over this period, Manning held several hearings, often scolding state officials for failing to provide North Carolina’s students with the education they are owed under our state constitution.

While these hearings helped highlight the state’s unwillingness to live up to its constitutional responsibilities, particularly for low-income students, the judge never placed concrete demands on state lawmakers. As a result, his hearings produced few tangible results for North Carolina’s students. Independent school experts concluded that this period moved our state “further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.”

Since Manning’s retirement, dramatic advancements in the Leandro case are bringing us much closer to a school system that meets the needs of our students. In 2017, the Leandro plaintiffs and the state agreed that North Carolina had been failing its children for far too long and that the state needed a clear, comprehensive plan. Judge David Lee appointed some of the nation’s leading education experts to develop the plan. Their report, referred to as the WestEd report, provided the state with the long-overdue roadmap of investments and reforms necessary to deliver a “sound basic education” to all.

As a result, the state is now better positioned to meet its constitutional obligations than we ever were when the case was led by Manning. We now know exactly what needs to be done. This information has invigorated stakeholders across the state who are now mobilizing to pressure the General Assembly to enact these long overdue measures.

Enter Howard Manning, who has emerged from a quiet retirement to offer a recent interview and an op-ed, where he expresses skepticism towards the court’s current approach and lauds a failed Republican program focusing on early-grade literacy. Republican leaders are now seizing upon Manning’s misinformed commentary to justify their own inaction and unwillingness to improve our schools.

Manning’s op-ed claims the answer to delivering a sound basic education to all students is not money, but “competent management” from principals and “effective teaching.” In other words, it’s not the General Assembly’s well-documented decade of austerity and incompetence that’s to blame, it’s those no-good teachers.

Manning’s view flies in the face of overwhelming academic research, our own history in North Carolina, and his own past views.

In recent years, research has shown conclusively that increases in state funding, particularly those brought about in school funding cases like Leandro, boost test scoresraise graduation ratesreduce the likelihood of both poverty and incarceration in adulthood, and improve intergenerational social mobility. Notably, almost all of these studies show that the benefits from state funding increases tend to be larger for Black students and students from families with low incomes (i.e., the very children who were systematically denied access to a sound, basic education while Manning oversaw Leandro).

We don’t only have to look to policy experts. Our own experiences in the 1980s and 1990s also show how smart increases in state investment can improve achievement and narrow opportunity gaps. A recent report from the Learning Policy Institute detailed how “North Carolina’s sustained investments over two eras of reform in the 1980s and the 1990s enabled it to become the first high-poverty Southern state to achieve above national norms and to make more progress in closing the achievement gap during the 1990s than any other state.”

There was a time not so long ago that Judge Manning himself understood that adequate funding is a necessary component of student success. Read more