Commentary, Education

At time of glaring education needs, state voucher program remains wastefully overfunded

In a year with no budget, one program for K-12 students was guaranteed a funding increase of more than 30%: the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. And once again, that funding will substantially outpace demand for vouchers. As a result, the state is on pace to waste more than $26 million that could otherwise be used to help students in public schools.

Since its inception, funding for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program has exceeded demand for vouchers. Nonetheless, lawmakers decided in 2016 that the program should receive automatic funding increases of $10 million per year through FY 2027-28 when total appropriations for the program will reach $144.8 million.

Additionally, the 2016 changes caused the program to become “forward-funded.” That means next year’s $10 million funding increase is sitting unused in a state bank account this year, unavailable for other functional purposes.

The chart above shows the trend in unused funds in each year of the voucher program’s existence. Unused funds are defined as fiscal year appropriation, plus funds carried over from the prior year, less expenditures on administration and voucher awards.

The out-sized amount of unused funds in FY 2016-17 were largely the result of the decision to begin forward-funding the program that year. Subsequent increases have been driven by voucher demand falling further behind available funding.

Without even getting into the merits of an unregulated voucher program (the merits are few), the continued over-funding of this program is indefensible. As documented in the Leandro consultant’s report published this past December, North Carolina’s school budget is $3.7 billion short (about 35%) of what’s needed to meet the bare minimum of what the state constitution says is required. It’s perverse to leave millions of dollars sitting needlessly idle each year when lawmakers are failing to meet their constitutional obligations to children.

Commentary, Education

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

Image: AdobeStock

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies: Read more

Commentary, Education

Senate Republican response to Leandro report is way off-base

Since gaining control of the General Assembly in 2011, Senate Republicans have expressed concern for children’s literacy. However, a recent Senate Republican press release indicates that North Carolina’s greatest literacy needs are in the halls of the Legislative Building, where Senate Republicans are unable to comprehend the recommendations of the recently-released Leandro consultant’s report and are unaware of the past 20 years of education research.

The press release claims that increases in school spending under Republican leadership will be sufficient to meet the recommendations of the Leandro consultant’s report. In reality, the Leandro consultant’s report calls for school budget increases that are about 48 times larger than what Republicans claim they will provide over the next eight years.

As the press release shows, North Carolina’s public school budgets have increased by an average rate of about 3.3 percent per year from 2010-11 to 2018-19. The 3.3 percent figure is in nominal terms; it doesn’t account for inflation or enrollment increases. It also somewhat overstates Republican budget efforts, as state spending in 2010-11 was artificially decreased by federal stimulus funding. But let’s stick with their 3.3 percent figure. Read more

Commentary, Education

Long-awaited Leandro report calls for setting new course for North Carolina’s schools

Today, the much-anticipated Leandro report was made public, giving North Carolina parents, educators, students, and education advocates have an important new roadmap for ensuring that our public schools provide every child with the education they deserve.

The report – a collaborative effort from some of the nation’s leading education experts – is a comprehensive examination of North Carolina’s public school system. The report’s recommendations have the potential to fundamentally change the direction of our state by unleashing the potential of all children to become flourishing adults, ready to contribute to a healthier, happier, and more prosperous North Carolina.

What is Leandro?

Leandro is a 25-year long court case. Throughout the case, the courts have consistently found that North Carolina has been failing to meet its most fundamental obligation under our State Constitution: providing every child a meaningful opportunity to receive a sound basic education, backed by adequate funding and resources in every public school. Additional background on the case can be found here.

Where did this report come from?

In 2017, parties to the case (the state defendants and the Leandro plaintiffs) agreed that North Carolina had been failing its children for far too long, and that the state needed a clear, comprehensive roadmap to providing a sound basic education that benefits all children. The court-appointed consultants (WestEd, in collaboration with the Learning Policy Institute and NC State’s Friday Institute) initially submitted the report to the court in June of 2019. The report was confidential until its release today.

What does the report say?

The report confirms what North Carolinians have been saying for years: The state has consistently failed to give every child in this state access to the education they deserve. Specifically:

  • A new approach is needed: While North Carolina was once making progress towards meeting its constitutional responsibilities, the past decade’s actions have left 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.”
  • Providing children with what they are owed requires significant new investment: Current levels of school funding (North Carolina ranks 48th in terms of school funding effort) are inadequate to ensure all students are achieving at grade level.
  • We must direct resources where they’re needed most: Our funding formulas need to do a better job of prioritizing higher-need students and under-resourced communities.
  • More needs to be done to put qualified, well-prepared and diverse teachers and principals in every school: Educators need competitive pay, early-career support programs, professional development, and opportunities to collaborate and lead.
  • Scarcity of early-learning opportunities is leaving too many students unprepared to start school: Both Smart Start and NC Pre-K are effective programs, but funding must be restored and expanded to ensure all students enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • High-poverty schools lack the resources to help students overcome out-of-school conditions that create barriers to learning: High-poverty schools should be provided the resources necessary to expand learning opportunities and implement community school models providing health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement. Struggling schools need state-level support similar to the District and School Support teams eliminated by the General Assembly in recent years.
  • Our testing and accountability system needlessly stigmatizes high-poverty schools, rather than providing useful information about educational effectiveness: Our accountability system should instead measure schools’ progress in providing each child a sound basic education by rewarding growth in student performance and highlighting school climate and equality of resources and learning opportunities.

The report contains significantly more detail. While the report’s recommendations may appear ambitious, it’s important to remember that these steps represent the bare minimum of what it takes to for the state to provide students with the education they deserve.

What happens now?

It is now incumbent upon state leaders to implement the report’s requirements and finally fulfill their constitutional responsibility to provide a quality education to every child. Judge Lee will likely follow up with a court order, requiring the General Assembly to take certain steps.

Based on similar cases from other states, a court order alone is likely to be insufficient to compel the lawmakers to meet their constitutional responsibilities. Over the next weeks and months, it is vital that North Carolinians across our state study and learn about the report’s findings and recommendations. The Justice Center will continue to analyze the report to ensure citizens across the state are equipped with the knowledge and context to push our lawmakers to prioritize these reforms in the upcoming 2020 legislative session.

Commentary

Rogue state superintendent keeps breaking the law

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

The state schools superintendent keeps breaking the law. Strangely, nobody at the General Assembly seems to care. Similarly, the capital press corps has shown no interest in holding his rogue actions to account.

Johnson’s lawbreaking centers around two rounds of iPad purchases, neither of which were conducted in accordance with state law.

Johnson’s spending spree on iPads first became news in August 2018 when he announced a $6.6 million purchase of iPads to support early grade literacy. That sounded like good news. But as Policy Watch’s Billy Ball reported, the purchase was highly unethical. The purchase came on the heels of Johnson attending an Apple-funded junket to California where he was wined and dined by Apple executives. Additionally, the no-bid contract for 24,000 iPads violated state protocol by failing to get approval from the Department of Information Technology, the agency that oversees tech services for state agencies.

But what went mostly unreported was that Johnson had no authority to spend the money he used to purchase those iPads. State law – put into place at Johnson’s request – clearly states that the money was to be distributed to school districts so that they could make purchases that best meet their needs.

Section 2.6 of S.L. 2017-197, the 2017 Budget Technical Corrections bill, says that unspent funds from the Read to Achieve program were to be distributed to school districts (“shall be allotted to local school administrative units”). In an August appearance on WRAL’s “On the Record,” Johnson claimed this provision is what gave him the authority to purchase iPads on his own and give them to districts.

At the time of Johnson’s first round of iPad purchases, the state had already provided districts with the devices necessary to carry out Read to Achieve. Despite the lack of a pressing need, most districts decided to keep the iPads sent to them. But about 10 percent of the iPads were returned to the state, where they sat in a warehouse for over a year.

One year later, Johnson decided to break the law again to buy even more iPads. After all, what’s the best way to respond to charges of quid pro quo? Even more quo, clearly.

This time, Johnson used a different source of funds to buy even more products from the company who paid for his trip to Cupertino. At the end of the 18-19 fiscal year, there was money left over from funds appropriated to support the Department of Public Instruction, a state agency. Johnson used these funds to buy 800 additional iPads. Based on nothing more but Johnson’s whim, 200 of the iPads were sent to Ocracoke School, and 100 were sent to Junius H. Rose High School in Greenville.

One problem: it’s illegal for agency heads to simply give away state property.

Article 3A of G.S. 143 requires any excess state-owned surplus property to be distributed via the State Surplus Property Agency. That agency can then sell the property or determine ways to distribute the property to tax-supported or nonprofit tax-exempt organizations. The iPads in question were clearly state-owned, as they were bought by a state agency with state funds. And they were clearly surplus, as they weren’t needed by anyone at DPI. Distribution of these iPads at the whim of a state agency head clearly falls in violation of these laws.

This might just sound like me dinging a guy for failing to dot his i’s and cross his t’s. But the laws are in place for a reason. Imagine a different scenario in whcih Johnson was giving away cash instead of iPads. Imagine if the teachers receiving these iPads were political supporters or were personal friends of the Superintendent. What if he unilaterally decided that funds appropriated to support children with disabilities would be better used on more iPads? There are many reasons why agency heads are prevented from doing what Johnson did: redirecting state funds meant for school districts and distributing state property to others based on nothing but personal whim.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be held accountable for breaking the law twice to purchase and distribute iPads that nobody asked for, or if he will continue to break multiple state laws without consequence.