Why are School Choice Week’s loudest supporters opposed to expanding school choice?

School choice week is upon us once again. Groups of lawmakers, advocates, and school leaders will praise General Assembly leadership for dramatically expanding school choice over the past decade. They will thank legislative leaders for increasing the number of charter schools and creating voucher programs that now give families earning over $100,000 per year over $5,500 for private school tuition.

Their praise will focus on the increasing number of students receiving vouchers and attending charter schools. They will celebrate the fact that the number of students in traditional, inclusive public schools has fallen since 2016, while the number of students attending charter schools or receiving vouchers has shot up. Over this period, traditional public school enrollment has fallen by 62,579 students, while charter enrollments have increased by 73,694. An additional 23,200 students are receiving vouchers since 2016.

While these enrollment changes will be lauded, astute observers will notice something important: little attention, if any, will be given to how these students are faring in their nontraditional school settings. That’s no accident, as traditional, inclusive public schools continue to outperform charter and voucher schools.

North Carolina’s traditional inclusive public schools are doing better than schools in the charter sector when it comes to bouncing back from the effects of the pandemic. This is the continuation of a trend. Traditional public schools in North Carolina continue to provide larger annual academic gains for their students than charter schools. In the most recent year, 71 percent of traditional public schools met or exceeded growth expectations, compared to just 63 percent of charter schools.

No such comparisons exist between traditional public school students and voucher students. This is by design. Legislative leaders have rejected efforts to examine whether voucher students are better off academically after leaving the traditional, inclusive public school system. Most likely, they don’t want to know just how bad it is. Read more

Two new reports confirm gross inadequacy of North Carolina’s public school funding

North Carolina’s school funding system is among the worst in the nation, according to two new reports from the nation’s leading school finance experts. New reports from the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI) and the Education Law Center (ELC) assess every state’s school funding systems across multiple quality measures. Both reports reach the same conclusion: North Carolina’s legislators are failing students by spending so little, and not doing nearly enough to ensure that all students across the state have equal opportunity to thrive.

The ASI report, “The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems,” assesses states’ school funding systems along three criteria:

  1. Statewide adequacy compares how much a state spends on public schools against the estimated amount a state would need to spend to reach U.S. average test scores. North Carolina ranks dead last among the 49 states assessed on this measure. The authors’ estimates show that 92% of North Carolina students attend underfunded districts and that closing North Carolina’s funding gap would require $5.4 billion in new funding.
  2. Fiscal effort assesses the extent to which states leverage their ability to raise school revenue by comparing total state and local school expenditures against each state’s gross state product (GSP). North Carolina ranks 46th on this measure. As the authors note, “low effort states with widely inadequate funding, such as…North Carolina, are essentially choosing to underfund their schools, as they have the capacity to raise more revenue.”
  3. Equal opportunity measures the degree to which adequacy varies between districts in each state by comparing adequacy in states’ highest-poverty districts with that in their lowest-poverty districts. North Carolina’s educational opportunity is deemed moderately unequal.

ASI ranks North Carolina’s school funding system 47th out of the 48 states with a possible rating.

Similarly, ELC’s report, “Making the Grade 2022,” ranks each state across three measures:

  1. Funding level is the amount each state spends on schools, adjusted for regional labor cost differences. North Carolina ranks 47th out of 50 states on this measure. Meeting the national average would require a 43% increase in funding.
  2. Funding distribution examines how funding in high-poverty districts compares to funding in low-poverty districts. North Carolina’s funding distribution is moderately progressive, with per-student funding in high-poverty districts about 5% higher than funding in low-poverty districts. 18 states have a more progressive funding structure than North Carolina.
  3. Funding effort is, like the API report, looks at school funding relative to a state’s GSP. Per the numbers used by ELC, North Carolina’s school funding effort ranks dead last in the nation. This ignominious position was reached by having one of the largest funding effort reductions since 2008. If North Carolina had maintained its 2008 funding effort, per-student funding in 2020 would have been $2,775 (29%) above actual funding levels.

ELC’s grades for North Carolina’s school funding system

It is important to remember that these dismal grades are a result of the deliberate policy decisions of North Carolina legislators.

There is nothing preventing legislators from modifying funding formulas to ensure that students in high-poverty districts receive the same opportunities as students in low-poverty districts. Denying disproportionately Black and brown students the same opportunities as predominantly white students is a deliberate (and racist) policy choice of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Similarly, our inadequately low funding level is also a deliberate policy choice. Our rock bottom effort levels show that we can afford to dramatically increase school spending to the levels seen in other states. Unfortunately, General Assembly leadership has prioritized tax cuts for the donor class over providing adequate funding in our schools.

The good news is that North Carolina has a detailed plan to address these issues. The Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan provides lawmakers with a step-by-step guide to dramatically improve North Carolina’s funding level and distribution by 2028. The Plan aligns almost exactly with what ELC estimates is necessary to meet national average spending levels and with what API estimates is necessary to ensure all districts have adequate funding. November’s North Carolina Supreme Court ruling should ensure that this plan is implemented unless legislators take the extraordinary step of ignoring both the constitution and the Supreme Court.

Let’s hit pause on half-baked teacher performance pay proposal

State Board of Education meets Nov. 30th.

The November 30th State Board of Education meeting will be the most consequential in some time. The Board will determine whether to recommend radically overhauling how to certify and pay the state’s 93,000 teachers. At question is whether the Board will move forward with an ambitious performance pay plan called Pathways to Excellence. The plan would end the current practice of paying teachers based on their credentials and years of service, instead basing teacher pay on measures of effectiveness and their willingness to assume additional responsibilities.

It’s a plan that should be rejected.

As detailed in the new Justice Center report, “New Performance Pay Plan for Teachers: Approach with Caution and Skepticism,” there are four important reasons why the State Board should reject this plan:

  1. A performance pay plan fails to address the underlying causes of our challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers, nor is it likely to benefit student performance. Worse, this plan is likely to distract from proven policy efforts to address the teacher shortage and to boost student performance.
  2. Major aspects of the plan, including how to measure teacher performance, remain undeveloped, and it is unclear whether the General Assembly will provide the staffing and funding necessary to implement the proposal fully.
  3. There’s a substantial risk that the plan will increase the share of teacher candidates from alternative programs; these candidates tend to have lower retention and effectiveness than candidates from university preparation programs.
  4. The plan lacks support from teachers. If the goal of the Pathways plan is to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers, then the opinions of teachers should hold sway. After all, teachers are the undisputed experts on the factors that will entice their colleagues to remain in the classroom or depart for other opportunities

Instead of moving forward with an unproven and unpopular plan, State Board members should be advocating for proven measures to recruit and retain great teachers such as:

Image: Adobe Stock

  • Providing broad-based pay raises to make teacher pay competitive with other college degree requiring professions in North Carolina
  • Improving classroom conditions by implementing the Leandro Plan, which will provide educators with the resources and additional supports necessary to help students thrive
  • Restoring benefits that legislators have removed over the past decade, such as career status, master’s pay, and retiree health care benefits
  • Permitting collective bargaining so that teachers can directly negotiate for better working conditions and a voice in the policymaking process
  • Allowing teachers the freedom to be professionals rather than trying to police how teachers approach controversial subjects and placing an overly narrow focus on tested subjects
  • Expanding the social safety net to reduce the barriers to learning placed in front of students from families with low incomes

That is not to say there isn’t room to improve North Carolina’s teacher licensure process or to develop new career pathways for teachers. However, such efforts should adhere to basic principles of good policymaking:

  • Risky reforms like Pathways should only be considered after policymakers have addressed fundamental shortfalls in teacher pay and working conditions
  • Changes to pay and working conditions should be developed collaboratively with those affected, in this case, teachers
  • Solutions should be responsive to local challenges rather than one-size-fits-all
  • Implementation should be deliberate and iterative so that implementation challenges are addressed prior to a larger rollout

If the State Board approves the Pathways plan, it will then move on to the General Assembly. Since the plan remains half-baked, it will be up to the General Assembly – a body that has spent the past decade degrading the teaching profession – to finalize and fund the plan. Undoubtedly, that process will take place behind closed doors, rely on ideologues rather than experts, and fail to result in a product that benefits educators and students.

To avoid such an outcome, it’s important for the State Board to reject Pathways and instead support proven methods for improving the recruitment and retention of teachers.

Expert report details the high cost of charter schools

Retired Duke University professor Sunny Ladd has published an incredibly important and useful paper detailing the high cost of charter schools. “How Charter Schools Undermine Good Education Policymaking” details the ways charter schools undermine four core goals of education policy:

  1. Establishing coherent systems of schools
  2. Attending to child poverty and disadvantage
  3. Limiting racial segregation and isolation
  4. Ensuring that public funds are spent wisely

Based on the legendary school finance expert’s deep study of charter schools, she recommends that policymakers limit the expansion of charter schools. Hitting pause on charter schools, Ladd argues, will help minimize the various ways that charters “disrupt the making of good education policy.”

First, the growth of charter schools should be severely restricted. Moreover, the authorization of new charter schools should be limited to those that are clearly designed to achieve the goals of the relevant local public education system. In this way, education policymakers can focus attention on the basic needs of the whole system, including, for example, providing quality teachers and adequate funding for all students and addressing the educational challenges of poverty and economic disadvantage. Moreover, limiting the growth of charter schools would limit inefficiencies associated with wasteful competition among schools.

This author wholeheartedly agrees with Ladd’s conclusions. The rapid expansion of charter schools in North Carolina has coincided with an era where our state has moved backwards in its effort to provide the quality of schools promised under our state constitution. As the WestEd Report concluded, this past decade has left North Carolina “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.”

In 2020, this author argued that the state should pause charter and voucher expansion until the state meets its obligations under Leandro. That piece cited how North Carolina charters increase racial segregation and educational costs for school districts while producing subpar test results.

Ladd’s piece details how those shortcomings are not unique to North Carolina’s charter sector. She also highlights additional issues such as charter schools’ lack of fiscal transparency and how charter schools distract from efforts to address the needs of low-income students in traditional public schools.

While Ladd’s call to severely restrict the growth of charter schools will generate the most attention, her additional policy recommendations are also worth heeding:

  1. Charter school regulations and policies should be modified to reduce some of the distorting effects of charter schools. Examples include providing traditional public schools transition aid for declining headcounts and requiring charters to offer basic services such as transportation and school lunch.
  2. In authorizing and overseeing charter schools, policymakers should pay close attention to the potential for charter schools to contribute to racial segregation and isolation.
  3. Charter schools should be subject to more stringent accountability procedures than traditional public schools, such as the public inspection system used for Massachusetts’s charter schools.

Typical of Ladd’s work, the paper is incredibly well written. It will serve as an important resource for those looking to limit charter schools’ negative impact on our traditional, inclusive public schools.

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