Commentary, Education

Over-funded Opportunity Scholarship vouchers continue to drain resources from underfunded public schools

Data from the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority shows that North Carolina’s largest voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship, was over-funded by approximately $16.8 million in FY 2017-18. The state appropriated $44.8 million to subsidize tuition costs for students attending private schools last fiscal year, but issued only $28.1 million in vouchers.

That $16.8 million is money that could have otherwise been put to productive use in our public schools. Per student funding for North Carolina’s public schools remains five percent below pre-Recession levels when adjusted for inflation. Our schools receive fewer teachers, instructional support personnel, and assistant principals than they did prior to the 2010 change in General Assembly leadership. Funding for textbooks, supplies, and teacher assistants are all down more than 35 percent from pre-Recession levels.

Despite the lack of demand for the program, legislators increased funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program by an additional 22 percent ($10 million) for FY 2018-19. Funding increases continue to outpace demand. As a result, the level of voucher funding that will sit untouched is likely to increase to about $19.3 million in FY 2018-19.

Absent action from the General Assembly, funding for the under-subscribed program is set to increase by $10 million per year through FY 2027-28. The Opportunity Scholarship voucher program is the only educational initiative for K-12 students with guaranteed funding increases.

Of course, the financial hit to North Carolina’s public schools extends beyond the millions of dollars sitting needlessly unused in state coffers. Researchers from NC State found that nearly half of all families who applied for, but failed to receive a voucher, ended up sending their child to a private school anyway. That implies that almost half of the $54.8 million of Opportunity Scholarship funding is being wasted, subsidizing activities that people were going to do anyway. The remaining $28 million or so is also wasted if the voucher students are getting a worse education in private schools. Unfortunately, policymakers refuse to allow any serious evaluation of the program.

Commentary, Education

Senator Berger’s signature education program continues to fail

In October, researchers from NC State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation helped to confirm what many educational advocates have long claimed: North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program is a failure. This week’s State Board of Education meeting included a presentation on the evaluation, which served as an important wake-up call to North Carolina’s policymakers. However the evaluation – while rigorous and well-written – leaves many important questions unanswered.

The Read to Achieve program, created by the 2012 budget bill, is an effort to improve early-grades’ reading proficiency by refusing to promote students who fail the state’s third grade reading test. Read to Achieve was based on a similar initiative from Florida and was championed by Senator Phil Berger.

While Florida’s program coincided with improved test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there was little indication that improved scores were driven by forcing struggling young readers to repeat third grade. After all, Florida coupled its third grade retention policy with large investments in interventions to help students become better readers, such as increasing instructional time, hiring reading coaches and intervention teachers, purchasing new instructional materials, investing in teacher professional development, and offering summer reading camps to struggling young readers. In fact, a recent study found Florida’s retention policy had no impact on improving the high school graduation rates of retained students.

North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program took a sharply different approach, attempting to replicate Florida’s apparent success without providing any interventions to help children pass their third grade reading test. North Carolina only invested in diagnostic reading tests to help teachers identify struggling readers and summer reading camps for third graders who had already failed the state reading exam and were facing the possibility of repeating the grade. Districts were required to provide additional tutoring and instruction for failing students, but did not receive additional funding to carry out these mandates.

The Friday Institute evaluation focuses on the narrow question of whether the eligibility for additional reading help (i.e., summer reading camps, additional reading instruction) improved future reading scores for students who just barely failed their third grade reading test. Their research concludes that these interventions have provided no measurable benefit to struggling readers.

These findings are important, as they can help the state reassess and modify the supports provided to struggling readers.

However, the assessment fails to answer the question that I think most North Carolinians want to better understand: why has third grade reading performance plummeted? Since the adoption of the Read to Achieve program, North Carolina’s third grade reading performance has fallen precipitously, more than any other state test.

Are declining third-grade reading scores the product of over-stressing 8 and 9-year olds by telling them they’ll be held back if they fail? Is it because incessant testing kills kids’ (and teachers’) love of reading? Is it because these cohorts have experienced slashed funding for NC Pre-K and other classroom supports?

Regardless, the plummeting test scores and the evaluation paint a damning picture of Senator Berger’s signature education initiative. We already know the program is failing to boost reading achievement. Overall performance continues to drop. And we now know via this latest evaluation that the limited assistance provided to struggling readers has been insufficient to boost their scores. It’s clear that Read to Achieve has been a profound failure and should be abandoned.

Commentary

Hidden policies in General Assembly “technical corrections” bill should be rejected

Legislative leaders have used December’s lame duck session as a last-gasp effort to pass a number of regressive policy measures that will move the state backwards. General Assembly leaders are in a rush to pass these bills before they lose their veto-proof majorities on January 1. Bills related to implementing the new voter ID requirement and the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement have understandably generated the most press coverage. But legislators are also trying to sneak through several changes to education policy that should be rejected.

SB 469, inaccurately titled as a “Technical Corrections” bill, creates several substantive changes to the state’s education policies. Notably, the bill would grease the rails for school segregation by making it easier for wealthy suburban communities to create “municipal charter schools” that would exacerbate gross inequities within North Carolina’s school system. Additionally, the bill would needlessly funnel $8,000 a year to certain families of private school students. Both are moves in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, the bill is bundled with a few good education policy changes that should be passed, making the Governor’s veto decision more difficult. Specifically, the bill would allow Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County to avoid being placed in the unproven, undemocratic, and unpopular Innovative School District program. Another section would protect pay for principals whose schools have lost enrollment due to Hurricane Florence.

Both of these are good ideas, embraced by leaders of both parties, that could easily be addressed this month in a clean bill or passed when the new General Assembly is seated in January. Lawmakers broadly support allowing Wayne County school leaders to continue its reform efforts at Carver Heights. Similarly, nobody thinks principals should face pay cuts due to a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence.

If Governor Cooper were to veto SB 469, he’d have strong bipartisan support for the measures related to Carver Heights and principal pay (as well as the number of other truly technical corrections included in the bill). The delay created by a veto might extend a period of policy uncertainty, but the issues would be addressed in due time – a small price to pay to prevent the further segregation of our public schools and the straining of public school budgets for school voucher programs.

Below are additional details on the deleterious changes proposed by SB 469. If the bill becomes law, legislators should focus on repealing these sections in the 2019 legislative session. Read more

Commentary

Report: NC teacher pay second-least competitive in nation

Source: Economic Policy Institute, “The teacher pay penalty has hit a new high,” September 5, 2018

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that the gap between wages for teachers and wages for other college graduates has grown to its highest-ever levels. According to the report, wages for American teachers are now 18.7 percent below the wages of their college-educated peers in other industries. This teacher wage penalty has grown substantially: the teacher wage penalty was just 1.8 percent in 1994, but has since grown to a record 18.7 percent in 2017.

These competitiveness measures are essential to operating a world-class education system. Teacher quality remains the most important in-class factor for student success. Countries with high-performing education systems, such as South Korea, Finland, and Singapore, understand the value of high-quality teachers and prioritize competitive teacher salaries to recruit and retain the best and brightest into the teaching profession.

Source: Economic Policy Institute, “The teacher pay penalty has hit a new high,” September 5, 2018

The report paints a particularly damning picture of teacher pay competitiveness in North Carolina, ranking the state 49th in terms of teacher wage competitiveness. According to their estimates, teacher pay in North Carolina is a whopping 35.5 percent behind pay for other college graduates in the state. Only Arizona offers a less competitive teacher pay package. Compared to simple rankings of state’s average teacher pay, this competitiveness measure paints a more accurate picture of North Carolina’s ability to attract and retain a high-quality teaching force. It is no coincidence that enrollment in North Carolina teacher preparation programs remains well below historical levels.

There is reason to believe that the EPI report might actually underestimate the extent of the teacher pay gap. My own 2016 analysis compared teacher wages against other full-time workers with a college degree. By this measure, U.S. teachers earn just 64 percent of what their full-time, college-educated peers earn. In North Carolina, teachers were found to earn just 57 percent of what other full-time, college-degree-holding North Carolinians earn.

Of course, teachers’ benefit packages tend to be more generous than those received in other industries. But these more valuable healthcare and retirement benefits fail to offset the gaping wage gap faced by teachers. According to EPI’s estimates, benefits only reduce the teacher pay gap by 7.6 percentage points. Even when benefits are accounted for, teacher pay significantly lags pay in other industries, making it more difficult to recruit and retain great teachers.

The report is an important reminder that – despite recent-year pay increases – North Carolina lawmakers must continue to invest in our teaching force if we hope to have a world-class education system. Ultimately, lawmakers must aim beyond simple national averages and instead ensure that our teacher salaries are competitive with the pay offered in other professions.

Commentary

New Mexico court ruling on inadequate, unconstitutional school funding should be wake up call for NC lawmakers

On July 20th, a New Mexico court ruled that the state’s school funding system was inadequate and unconstitutional, violating the constitutional equal protection and due process rights of economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners and Native American students. The ruling is an unmitigated victory for the residents of New Mexico, particularly those from underserved communities.

The evidence of New Mexico’s inadequate funding will sound familiar to North Carolinians:

  • New Mexico students lack adequate instructional materials, curricula and teachers.
  • The lack of resources is having a disproportionately negative impact on children from low-income families, Native American students, and English language learners.
  • To allow at-risk students to overcome the barriers they face, the state must provide programs such as pre-K, summer school, after-school programs, targeted class-size reductions, and research-based reading programs.
  • The state’s teacher evaluation system penalizes teachers for working in high-need schools, creating shortages of effective teachers in high-need schools.

These same arguments were echoed by the more than 20,000 educators who marched on Raleigh on May 16th of this year. Their message highlighted how nearly ten years of austerity budgets in North Carolina are making it increasingly difficult for teachers to meet the needs of all of their students. Specifically, there are direct local parallels to each of the findings from the New Mexico case:

  • North Carolina’s lack of adequate instructional materials, curricula, and teachers is evidenced by the 55 percent reduction in classroom supplies, 39 percent reduction in textbooks, and 2.5 percent reduction in classroom teachers from pre-Recession levels.
  • North Carolina’s disproportionate impact on at-risk students is evidenced by widening achievement gaps on the National Assessment of Student Progress.
  • North Carolina funds fewer Pre-K slots than from before the Recession. Districts have little funding for summer school or after-school programs. The General Assembly’s one-size-fits-all class-size reduction plan is forcing districts to abandon targeted class-size reduction plans that focused on at-risk students. North Carolina’s early-grades literacy efforts have ignored research-informed best practices, and has been associated with declining reading scores.
  • North Carolina has a school-based evaluation system that does a better job measuring students’ family incomes rather than how much learning is taking place, needlessly stigmatizing schools with a high proportion of low-income students.

In fact, school funding in New Mexico looks better than in North Carolina. Adjusted to reflect differences in regional wages, poverty, economies of scale, and population density, New Mexico outspends North Carolina by 29 percent:

Read more